Is That Bitter Taste Wine? Nah, Boo, It’s The Taste of Ayanda Mabulu’s Paintings Marinated In Racism

Text: Pakama Ngceni and Tiisetso Tlelima

Image: Supplied

Ayanda Mabulu Culture Review

The first thing we have to admit is that we did not expect the paintings to dazzle us with new knowledge when we attended the exhibition opening for Ayanda Mabulu and Vusi Beauchamp’s works at the Kalashnikov Gallery in Braamfontein recently. We were not shocked that Msholozi’s penis made its usual appearance. Hundreds of years of oppression have taught us nothing if not the many ways black bodies are readily available as objects in the world. Black people’s bodies are things to be looked at, bought and sold for ‘you know who’s’ gaze and puts questions to what is considered beautiful or desired artistic tastes and who largely profits from this state of affairs.

We like art, we also like wine. We can’t afford to buy art, let alone afford to collect artworks that are easily sold at 80 grand a pop. We figure that free wine at an exhibition opening under a dubious name is a lekker, though not progressive, incentive from an industry that has, in our eyes, profited because of what can be referred to as the totality of white racism in our society. Yes, the South African art space, as it currently stands is a good old fashioned factory that profits off black pain despite its airs about creativity, freedom and diversity. Unsolicited dick pictures guarded by security and displayed in what remains a tricky space for black bodies aside, we thought free wine would also grace us with its presence, but alas, no free wine. This is our first complaint.

Mabulu is well known as a protest artist of sorts, an artist whose work centres on the social disruption of the status quo. This view seemingly goes unchallenged even by those who disagree with his portrayal of Msholozi’s pipi because they understand it to mean he is challenging the social order of things. But what are the deliberate statements being made about black people that remain unchallenged or worse condoned by the artist’s visual work? You will remember that there was a lot of hoo-hah around the painting of Msholozi having sex with the darling of the world, Nelson Mandela. Many opponents to the work went to town about the implications of “raping” Mandela’s legacy; apparently there was no justification for this image as if sexual assault can ever be justified. It clearly needs to be said: Mabulu and everybody else should stop right there with linking systematic anti-black violence to sexual acts that are portrayed as undesirable. This smells a lot like trivialising the stories of gay men and puts the burden of shame on the wrong targets. Apparently two grown men cannot have consensual sex on a chair and enjoy it. In 2017, our visual language continues to make sex between men a taboo which undermines hard worn struggles against homophobia. It is apparently permissible to use corruption to spit in the face of the LGBTI community even though corruption cannot realistically be put solely at Msholozi’s doorstep. We forget that he is merely implementing ANC neo-liberal policies. It is important to note that both Mandela and Mbeki were responsible for managing these violent policies which have killed black people and endorsed corruption systematically. Policies that will continue long after Msholozi has finished his term. Let’s park this for now and go back to Mabulu’s clear homophobia in his work.

Previously, Mabulu also painted Zuma performing a sex act on a naked Atul Gupta on an aircraft. Again, certain sex acts are to be shamed and used to denigrate those associated with performing them. At the recent exhibition, Mabulu displayed yet another painting where Zuma’s figure and his side kick penis are quite central. In the painting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is on the floor, legs up and masturbating with a rolled up Vote ANC headlined newspaper. The masturbation itself seems to be at the pleasure of Zuma who is standing in front of her because black women cannot enjoy sexual freedom unless it is for the pleasure of a man. It is not clear to us whether she is going to be raped by Zuma or the ANC. What is clear is that she is represented as the immoral, promiscuous jezebel that is so often associated with black women. This is another trope that was used in legitimising sexual assault of black women by slave owners because a sexually free woman cannot be a victim of sexual assault. We don’t know why Mabulu painted her in this way, but to us she seems to have no agency. She is not the Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who is fully aware of the anti-blackness of the ANC or who has actively participated in furthering institutions that are anti-black women, including but not limited to how the ANC generally treated Fezekile Kuzwayo.

This comparison of horrible things that are not rape with rape also does not settle well with actual rape survivors, especially with the kinds of scary numbers of rapists we know exist. Worse still, somewhere in the background is a mirror reflection of Kuzwayo sitting on a bed. She is chained and smiling. The text on the side of the artwork reads: “In this dog we fucked even with his bastard and prostitute…” Sex work, it’s called sex flippen work!. “He went on to rape Khwezi and now his ex wife wants us to vote ourselves into rape kingdom rapedom,” continues the quote. Under the pretense of standing up for Kuzwayo, Mabulu chooses to paint her naked behind the towering figure of a fully dressed Zuma. The casting of Kuzwayo as just a perpetual powerless rape victim in another ‘episode of Zuma and the wielding penis’ is horrific. She is a passive, submissive woman who has no real purpose other than being used as an object to be whipped out every time someone wants to give Zuma the middle finger. In other words, Mabulu uses Kuzwayo as the fodder to which men fight other men. He dares, in a further installation in the same exhibition to write: It is this monkey that raped Khwezi and you might be next in line.” We’ll let that sink in while we digest the implications of triggering those who already experience the real threat of sexual assault on a daily, without ever voting in a corrupt official into power as a prerequisite.

Exploiting sexual violence as a metaphor in his artwork is insensitive. We have ourselves been around platforms where black women especially have called him out on this. So it is not that nobody has ever told him how harmful his art is,but these kinds of callouts have had no effect on his work it seems. In fact, time and time again, we are told it is art, that he is driving a point home about the violence of the ANC on the general population, that he has a right to express himself, and even that we, the targets of many sexual assaults should be grateful to him for “highlighting” our plight. All the wows for erasing the work of 1in9 and all the women who built an institutional support of resistance for Kuzwayo and other women who speak out.

Mabulu has been publicly quoted on his work as saying IsiXhosa asitolikwa [you cannot translate isiXhosa] so we also won’t beat about the bush. He is a man portraying himself as some sort of expert on the feelings of those who have been sexually assaulted, a crusader for the cause. Except Zuma is not a rapist because he is a bad man, he is not a rapist because he is corrupt, he is not a rapist because he is in power and using it to enrich some. This idea that people are raped by monsters from outer space and not by nice men with families, good community roots and yes awaiting Presidents also, is an attack to the ground work black women have been involved in throughout this country. Work that is being systematically erased by the ideas implied in his paintings.  To equate conquest and corruption to rape is an act of alienating us from the realities of rape and contributes to making rape seem “unreal”. This is not to say that Zuma isn’t a misogynist and a rapist, but that these images contribute to the violence that is meted out against women who speak out about rape as a whole.

This notion of “art for art’s sake” which prohibits us from judging art from the themes it touches on needs to be disputed. We cannot simply look at the aesthetics or defend the artist’s right to freedom of speech when he is producing such vile images. Surely we deserve better than somebody who has such a narrow, ahistorical view of black people’s bodies, and uses the very tropes that white people use to stereotype black people? His uncritical reproduction of black people as monkeys, the extent to which there is a disregard of rape survivors and the psyche of black people’s trauma is violent. We don’t have to go into how dangerous it is to depict Zuma’s children as monkeys in a country where a black person can be shot and killed for being “mistaken” for a monkey. Black people being seen as monkeys or better yet mandigos also dates back to slavery where slave owners promoted the notion that black people were devilish and animalistic in nature. It has a long dark history.This narrative of blacks as primitive beasts assisted whites in colonising Africa because blacks were and are still seen as uncivilised buffoons who cannot govern themselves. But here is Mabulu using the very same tools to point to the failures of a so called black government, in Africa, for a market that remains largely white.

Mabulu’s work is usually displayed in spaces that remain inaccessible to working class black people thereby triggering blacks who have to view this representation of ourselves with white people in the room. A white art enthusiast buys the painting, yes as we’ve said they are ridiculously expensive and often bought by those who have made their riches through plundering themselves, and hangs this painting on their wall where their dinner party guests will crack jokes about penis sizes and dripping vaginas while enjoying wine. Historically, black men were represented as the boogeyman whoraped and fantasised on killing white women. And black women as wild whores. This was used to justify racism and violence against black people and the lynching that happened during slavery. This continues to this day. You will remember that two years ago in the U.S there was an incident where a young white man Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church, murdering nine black people. Before he started shooting he uttered: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Pause for a minute and consider how representations of the rapey Negro who can’t control his penis made this situation possible. What is made possible by Mabulu’s images? We are in no way isolating Mabulu as doing some novel form of anti blackness through his art; we are merely exposing that he adds to the problem. ‘Freedom of _ _ eech’ was the title of the exhibition, it should have been titled Freedom of Leech. Leeching on the pain of rape survivors andsucking the life out of black women’s work. Furthermore, he suffocates sex workers with judgements and slaps the LGBTI community in the face for relevance. His work forces us to ask, what other kinds of metaphors should black artists be creating for us? Who gets hurt when we ignore this need? Why trigger people and not give them free wine?The exhibition thankfully ended on October 21.