Sharper than spears

2012-09-01 15:02

Charl Blignaut discovers Ayanda Mabulu’s deep sense of betrayal that gives rise to his work

In scuffed, red All Stars and cargo pants, a young man with thick, earthy dreadlocks faces a group of journalists in an art gallery in Cape Town. On his T-shirt is a picture of a lion.

“How can he dance while our people are dying of starvation?” he asks, gesturing at Umshini Wam, his oil painting of a dancing Jacob Zuma with a huge penis unfurled from beneath traditional attire.

“We don’t want to see these black-skinned colonial masters wearing tuxedos and eating sushi – whereas our people are dressing in rags, 15 in a one-roomed house, sharing a toilet. We are starving psychologically. We are starved of an education.”

The journalists nod, smile and turn questions back to the penis and The Spear and the thrilling possibility of the painting being defaced.

What no one asks is where Ayanda Mabulu comes from and what makes him paint these things.

According to the ANC he is a sellout, “a house slave”, an abuser of art and a disrespectful child.

Among Twitter intelligentsia, he is an opportunist playing the art game to sell a work.

If that’s the case, it worked.

The painting – catalogued at R75 000 – was optioned by two buyers this week at the AVA Gallery’s exhibition, Our Fathers.

Mabulu is no stranger to selling paintings.

At 29 he has staged four solo shows of streety and compelling political portraits.

One of them was on a residency to China last year.

His work exposing Mao Tse-Tung’s penis was not allowed to be displayed.

“I am an activist before I am an artist,” he says when we chat.

Today he lives in a two-roomed house “of asbestos, cardboard and zinc” in Cape Town’s Du Noon informal settlement.

He paints at a studio in Woodstock and is engaged to be married to a young woman called Xoliswa.

“She is as beautiful as the Mona Lisa,” he says with pride.

He’s come a long way from living on the street, as he did for a year and a half when he moved here in 2002.

He had relatives, but there was no space – there were 15 people in one room.

“I did not beg. I designed my life to be simple. I did odd jobs for food, I ate with neighbours. I refused to sell my art on the street. It degrades what I do.”

Growing up in Zwelitsha township in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, he painted on the walls of his home – to share a message with passers-by.

“Before I left I painted a picture of how beautiful Cape Town is – my expectation of it. When I came back I painted the inside of an ugly two-room shack flooded during the rain.”

He says school taught him nothing – except to “throw stones.” He resented being educated in English instead of Xhosa.

His mother was a domestic worker and his father did odd jobs in town. He speaks fondly of being nurtured by his community.

“We weren’t poor. What we had was good enough. Now we are poor – now that we are deprived by our own people.”

At eight he painted King Moshoeshoe, a tribute to his Africanist ideals.

After the Bisho massacre he painted Oupa Gqozo with the body of a dog.

Returning to Cape Town in 2004 he met a woman with a shop who offered to sell his paintings.

He settled at Worldart gallery.

He says the ANC sold his people out in 1994.

"This democracy was not for sale, but it was sold anyway.”

In protest, he created dramatic political canvasses showing exposed ANC and Afrikaner leaders.

He painted Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu’s penises – and Zuma’s, long before Brett Murray did.

“When I portray a man I show he has a penis. I don’t care about the president’s sex life. I don’t question my father’s sex life. He is my elder. A penis is a symbol of power. Yes, it is large and it is extreme. We live in extreme times.”

He says his work is in no way inspired by Murray, who he supports, but of course Mabulu is tapping into the hype.

He’s no fool.

He wants attention because he wants his voice heard.

“We have no platform to express ourselves because we are poor. If we want a conversation with our leaders we are called protesters.”

I ask frankly how much of this week’s media drama was for publicity. He snorts. “Were the Lonmin miners doing it for the TV?”

The bad news for the government is that Mabulu isn’t just going to go away.

“My people must see the truth and not be fooled by these politicians with pockets of money and hands stained with the blood of our people.

“Until we get proper service and education, I won’t stop.”

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