Drawing on the wall

2011-10-28 07:51

As soon as the first cave dweller at the dawn of human civilisation picked up a mark-making tool to decorate the walls of his cavern, the mural as an art form was born.

Art on the wall – not hung on it – has always been a feature of the South African public art landscape. Globally, too, there are many, many famous examples of murals. Consider a fresco masterpiece such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Both are superlative examples of public art.

Also the Mexican mural movement, which died out in the 1960s, had seen artists looking back into that country’s pre-Columbian heritage to chart a new creative path. Notable among this lot, of course, were the likes of Diego Rivera, a leftist visionary, who was also famously married to another of the muralists – the late, great Frida Kahlo.

Here at home, as in Mexico, murals have had an egalitarian slant, unlike the above lofty examples of European Renaissance art, commissioned by the rich to adorn walls for “divine” purposes.

Murals in South Africa, as the most popular of the painted art forms, have adorned the walls of township beer halls as adverts, bridge barriers with any number of political messages and even dilapidated tenement buildings sport the art form’s more unruly cousin, graffiti.
Whatever form it takes, this is undeniably the most democratic of the art forms, the most accessible to most people and one that many have had a hand in creating.

An African example of traditional public art is the multicoloured, now iconic wall paintings of AmaNdebele people, and the cow-dung and earth-toned diagrammatic decorations of huts across the African experience.

Perhaps no artist of the previous two generations has taken Ndebele painting further than Esther Mahlangu.

Shooting herself onto the global art scene from the village of Weltevrede in Mpumalanga where she lives, Mahlangu has painted murals in Europe, North America and beyond.

She also famously painted the BMW 525i Art Car, which is housed at the Museum of Design in Zurich.

Currently, artist Simon Gush has found inspiration for his latest body of work in the politically engaged murals of the bad old days of apartheid. The Joburg-based artist recently exhibited at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein.

His new body of work investigates the evolving meaning of labour federation Cosatu, hence connecting his efforts with the working-class inclinations with which murals have historically been associated.

Apart from some video projections and drawings, Gush presented a series of murals designed around Cosatu logos, which were proposed at the organisation’s launch in Durban in 1985. The now popularly known design by Louise Almon was the one selected to represent the organisation.

In his murals, Gush employs socialist iconography. The clenched fist emerging from a row of working-class matchbox houses, the iconic socialist red star of socialism superimposed with a cluster of black stars that forms the iconic shape of the African continent.

There are also the hands of workers holding up tools arranged on musical staff lines. These hands then sketch a struggle tune and perhaps a prayer for the downtrodden into the organisation’s meaning. It’s this work’s focus on the analogies of belief and working-class ideologies of access for all which connect Gush to other anti-establishment public art practices.

Think of a group of artists with a much more anarchist bent: graffiti writers. This lot pushes the envelope to make art for public indulgence.
So hard as to even risk jail time in pursuit of their creative urges.

In Durban this August, seven graffiti painters were arrested, paying in the extreme to unleash their message on the city’s walls.

Though even these renegades, like their ancestors during the Renaissance, find themselves moonlighting for The Man to pay the bills – whether it’s for the Vatican or for MTN.

Take Rasty, one of Joburg’s most respected spraypaint crusaders within circles in the know. He points out: “Graffiti is about reclaiming the city walls, either from decay or corporate gentrification.” But he and his crew PCP are now working with the city to adorn walls with art.

Rasty works out of a tattoo parlour that doubles as a gallery space and graffiti art centre in Braamfontein. You could call this man the poster boy for anti-establishment behaviour – though in a trendy pop kind of way, notwithstanding his occasional corporate gig.

When we meet up at his studio for a chat, he wears sagging cargo pants and a soiled pair of sneakers with waist-long dreadlocks. Seen under the flickering light, the tattoos on his arm compete with the veins on his white skin.

Rasty insists that graffiti is the ultimate mural, “because the artists give their work to the community for free”. But the law generally defines it as vandalism. In fact, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) recently sealed off some walls in the city with a spraypaint-resistant coating.

But Rasty says the JDA has since learnt that “you can’t fight the art?.?.?.?it will always be there. So it’s best to work with it”.

So, together with his crew, they’ve been receiving corporate and public art commissions from the city. These include the art decorating some BRT stations. Other of Rasty’s corporate projects include working for brands such as Adidas, MTN, Nike and Sprite, to mention a few.

So, as he lights up a rolled cigarette, Rasty says: “It’s also very important to differentiate between the work of a kid tagging [signing] their name all over the place and a mature graffiti artist. Though, we shouldn’t try to restrict that same kid, because that’s how everyone starts out.”

So, as the sun sets on the Joburg metropolis and the curling smoke twirls complex curves into the air around the graffiti artist, the mind can make the link from crude scribblings on toilet walls to official commemorative portraits on walls to art that makes the city a more colourful place.

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