The rule breakers

2013-11-16 11:00

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They are sometimes shocking and sometimes horrifying but they're seldom boring – they're artists and they revel in pushing boundaries and touching on the taboo. Brett Murray may have caused outrage with his depiction of President Jacob Zuma's nether regions in his controversial painting, The Spear, but he is by no means the only rebel with a cause shaking things up in the art world.  

The in-your-face activist

Ayanda Mabulu

Ayanda Mabulu’s recent painting of Jacob Zuma setting a dog on a Marikana miner wasn’t the first time the self-taught 32-year-old artist put the knife into the man he blames for the country’s woes.

As part of his 2010 exhibition ‘Un-mute My Tongue,’ Ayanda pre-dated The Spear by featuring Zuma with a bandaged penis on crutches, suggesting damage from overuse.

Two years later, he again depicted what he called Zuma’s ‘weapon of mass destruction’, revealed as the president raised his leg in a traditional dance.

He painted it large and potent-looking, but not erect. ‘I wanted to emphasise the strength of the president’s power,’ Ayanda says. ‘It was given to him by the people, yet he doesn’t use it on their behalf.’

Ayanda’s bitterness is heartfelt. His home is a two-room house that he and his wife and newborn baby girl share with five members of his extended family in DuNoon, a township recently rocked by housing protests in the north of Cape Town.

‘These public figures are living in comfort, sipping Champagne,’ he says. ‘They don’t care about our suffering. It’s important for me as an artist to document the times the way they really are.’

Born in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, Ayanda was 11 when he produced his first satire, following the 1992 Bisho massacre that took place in the Ciskei homeland.

‘I painted the homeland leader Oupa Gqozo as a dog,’ he says. He moved to Cape Town 10 years later, and has since exhibited widely.

‘Sometimes you have to be disrespectful in order to be noticed,’ he says. The death threats don’t faze him. ‘The power that is my work will be inherited by those who have seen it. Love drives my art. I question things so that people’s lives can be transformed.’

The like-it-or-lump-it photographer

Zanele Muholi

Though Zanele Muholi’s daily life is a courageous defiance of convention, the activism she practises through her photography isn’t always brazen.

‘Rich and beautiful’ and ‘elegant yet assured’ is how Carnegie International judges described 48 of Zanele’s portraits of the black LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community last month in New York, when they awarded her their Fine Prize for an emerging artist.

It was a somewhat different response from that of South Africa’s former Arts and Culture minister, Lulu Xingwana, who was so offended a few years ago by Zaneli’s photos of embracing black lesbians that she stormed out of the show she’d been due to open.

Accolades for Zanele have come thick and fast since then, all in recognition of the brave work she’s doing to expose the ghastly realities faced by gay black women in a country where, even with gay rights enshrined in one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world, loving someone of the same sex can be a death sentence.

Her visual activism is broad-based. She did a bold satirical take on Kenny Kunene’s notorious party where naked models became sushi platters.

Called ‘I’m Just Doing My Job’ – the response of one of the models – Zanele’s piece featured two women pretending to eat what looked like raw entrails off Zanele’s naked body.

Though gruesome, it caused a laugh or two. But there’s nothing funny about the extreme turf in which this

41-year-old works. Last April, burglars stole all her photos documenting gay hate crimes in South Africa from her Cape Town flat.

Among the work lost was her Queercide material, a project she’s been working on for some time.

‘Queercide is a term I use for the systematic atrocities and hate crimes against lesbians, gay men and trans people in our country,’ she says. ‘The project attempts to reclaim citizenship and calls for laws that will put an end to it.’

Co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organisation, Zanele is not afraid of controversy.

‘People can say what they want – and they always do. But it’s my right to express my feminist viewpoint. As a photographer I want to become an agent for change. Of course I’m scared, but I can’t give up the fight.’

The anything-goes exhibitionist

Steven Cohen

Mystified Paris police arrested Steven Cohen, South Africa’s most famous performance artist, in September when they found him dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower in a corset and platform heels, with a ribbon connecting his genitals to a live rooster named Frank.

It wasn’t just a crazy stunt. The 51-year-old artist was making a statement about being a displaced person in France, where he’s lived for 10 years.

(His partner, Elu, is French and the rooster is the national symbol of France.) Charged with sexual exhibitionism, Steven will plead not guilty when his case comes up on 16 December.

Before he relocated to Europe, he was often tormented in South Africa for being sexually provocative.

‘I’ve been yelled at, mocked, spat on, hit, punched, kicked,’ is how he puts it. But provocation is precisely his aim.

He wants to draw attention to what society has marginalised, starting with his own identity as a gay, Jewish, white South African man.

He referenced his white guilt last year when he put his black 91-year-old childhood nanny – naked and shackled as a reference to slavery and apartheid – on stage with him for the performance Cradle of Mankind at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, after it was well received in Paris.

(Nomsa Dhlamini, an extremely fit old lady, performed with vigour and claimed to enjoy the public attention, which included standing ovations.)

In an interview discussing one of his early shows in a Newtown, Joburg, informal settlement about to be destroyed, Steven said: ‘You watch people with nothing, losing what they don’t have … and I feel white and weird and I feel voyeuristic, and I feel I don’t have the right to be there. And at the same time I have to maintain a belief in the project, which does give me the right to be there.’

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