A missile fired in anger and despair

18 October 2015 - 02:04 By Ismail Mahomed


Ayanda Mabula's latest artwork, Umshini Wam (Weapon of Mass Destruction), a commentary about President Jacob Zuma's political leadership, is unlikely to find hanging space in the hallowed halls of parliament. It is not - despite South Africa's very liberal constitution, which celebrates freedom of expression and creativity - going to find itself in the Constitutional Court among other glorious works about our democracy.Nor is Mabula's work going to find itself on the walls of corporations whose philanthropy towards the arts is highly respected. Even the most philanthropic organisations are sensitive about what they put on their walls. They have to give consideration to their conservative employees - and they have to be guarded if they want to win government tenders.Mabula's Umshini Wam is not the kind of artwork that will find itself in public museums; they are holding desperately outstretched hands to the Department of Arts and Culture. They are hoping that their next grant will be paid in time so that they don't have to retrench curatorial staff or cut back on their educational programmes. Mabula's artwork might jeopardise their relations with government bureaucrats.block_quotes_start his representation of Zuma’s penis is a metaphor for how the president has raped our country with his poor leadership and corrupt reputation block_quotes_endMabula's artwork will not be published in the pages of a high school art-class textbook. Zuma's manhood is not portrayed as sweetly as David's in Michelangelo's statue. Mabula's depiction of the president's penis is as a huge powerhouse.It is on the gallery walls of social media that Mabula's artwork finds itself being exhibited. It is here where his artwork is copied and shared. It is in the digital space that highly emotive debates are taking place about it.There are some who argue that the work is hauntingly beautiful. There are others who say it is grotesquely ugly. Others do not engage with the aesthetics. They passionately discuss what the artwork represents. Or they discuss how the work violates cultural values.This is not the first time that a South African artist has used the president's penis as a representation in their work.Brett Murray stirred the nation's consciousness when his work, The Spear, was shown at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.Anton Kannemeyer stirred social media debate when his recent body of work, which also features a representation of the president's penis, went on show at Johannesburg's Stevenson Gallery this month.full_story_image_hleft1Mabula himself represented the president's penis in an earlier work. The president's penis has also been the butt of many South African stand-up jokes.For many artists, the president's penis is their new cultural weapon. The representation of his penis is an expression of their outrage about the absurdity of our democracy under the leadership of a failed president.It is a missile that doesn't just take aim at the president, who will someday be comfortably ensconced in his compound at Nkandla; it is a cannon fired at the cohorts who defend his weaknesses and who walk roughshod over the hope that South Africans envisioned in 1994.These new works are a long walk away from the celebratory songs sung on the podium when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president. They have none of the delicate grace that adorns much of the artwork on the walls of the Constitutional Court as a reminder that we should never go back to our horrid past. Neither does this new artwork have any of the gentleness that gives the works in parliament's hallways a sense of authority.story_article_left1Mabula's artwork is a grotesquely ugly representation. It shows how far we have plummeted from our 1994 dream to a sewer of disillusionment. His work is angry. It is intended to make his subjects and his viewers feel discomfort.It is from that sense of discomfort that Mabula's real strengths as an artist emerge because he shows the courage to speak truth to power. His representation of Zuma's penis is a metaphor for how the president has raped our country with his poor leadership and corrupt reputation.Mabula will probably never be funded by the government for any of his projects. He will be scorned by art textbook compilers. His work may never be shown by museums, gallerists and festivals that are dependent on public funding for survival. He will be hated as much as his artwork is detested by some people.But the purpose of making art that critiques society is not to make the artist feel loved.The purpose of making art that speaks to our society is to push society out of its inertia. It is intended to help us release our bottled emotions. It must play havoc with our minds. It must force us into those dark spaces where we fear to tread. It must awaken us to the things that we hope will go away but never do because through our silence we allow the cancer to eat away at our fibres.Uncomfortable art is sometimes a powerful reminder that the struggle is not yet over. As much as we deny it, we cannot run away from the fact that uncomfortable art offers us the energy to pick up the weapons from those who have fallen and whose fight we have to continue.In South Africa, culture has always been a weapon of the struggle. Brett Murray, Anton Kannemeyer and Ayanda Mabula are not alone. There are many more artists who are ready to take on the president and to hang him by the balls.It is unfortunate, though, that in a country with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, the penis has to become the weapon through which our artists have to wage their battles.Mahomed is the artistic director of the National Arts Festival. He writes in his personal capacity

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