Taboo, or not taboo – that is the question

2010-07-18 16:06

While the world celebrates former president Nelson Mandela’s 92nd

birthday today, the art world is ­debating whether it is taboo to portray the

icon in a negative light.

“Oh, but it’s your job!” was ­Mandela’s response when cartoonist

Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) once tried to justify a cartoon critical of the former

president in a telephone ­conversation.

Commenting this week on the outrage over a more recent portrayal of

Madiba – Yuill Damaso’s “Dead Mandela” painting – Zapiro said it “only shows

that many people love Madiba and that art can be uncomfortable”.

Although an “overwhelming amount” of Shapiro’s cartoons of Mandela

had been positive, he said that in 1995 he “found it necessary” to do critical

­cartoons of Mandela.

Shapiro said he was encouraged by Mandela’s attitude.

“Madiba himself opened up that space for us to be ­critical,” he


As for Damaso’s painting, Shapiro said it was “completely within

the bounds of freedom of expression”.

“It is great we are able to debate these issues in an open forum.

What is worrying is the draconian, apartheid-type of response by the ANC wanting

to censor that forum.”

Damaso’s canvas depicts a dead, semi-­naked Mandela on an autopsy

­table surrounded by, among others, President Jacob Zuma, DA leader Helen Zille

and the late child Aids ­campaigner, Nkosi Johnson.

The painting was met with a storm of criticism, notably from the

ANC, which called it “an act of witchcraft”.

In defence of his work, Damaso said Nkosi Johnson was “showing them

that Madiba is merely a man of flesh and blood”.

Wits academic and artist Thembinkosi Goniwe is not sympathetic to

Yuill’s predicament. Goniwe questioned the need to ­preserve a “sort of

sanitised image of Mandela”, but wondered if this was not a case of “performed

controversy to gain recognition” on Yuill’s part.

“The painting does nothing for me ... There are artists who we know

in the field who have done more sustained and better art reworking Dutch

paintings (Yuill’s painting is based on a painting by Rembrandt) in a South

African ­context.”

Comments Yuill: “My choice of that image was not a career


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