The serious artist revealed

To come to terms with the power of Ayanda Mabulu’s art, one has to confront the controversial painter-poet’s work in the sacrosanct space of a gallery hall – like many art enthusiasts in Cape Town have been doing at the Commune.1 gallery, where the 32-year-old is currently exhibiting.

Titled Imvo Zabantsundu/The Native Opinion, the sum of the work on show finds its triumphs through the sheer immensity of what’s on display.

These are large-scale works on paper that present Mabulu’s most comprehensive body of work to date, and include paintings that have never been seen before.

Mabulu shot into popular imagination, if not notoriety, through his unflattering depictions of President Jacob Zuma’s genitals.

Though Mabulu’s work has kept its idiosyncratic bite, his latest show reveals him as a serious artist with a clear set of ideas.

He works and reworks his surfaces with charcoal, paint, wallpaper, gold leaf, and magazine and newspaper clippings until a particularly mature and delightful visual appeal is achieved.

However, the best place to start unpacking his work is in the title.

Imvo Zabantsundu, which loosely translates to “black people’s opinion” or “Native opinion”, which was the first black newspaper founded in King William’s Town in Eastern Cape by John Tengo Jabavu in the late 1800s.

Metaphorically, the title locates Mabulu and his work in the historic stream of vocal anti-establishment black opinion makers.

His audiences are almost always pulled into discourse about South Africa’s current socio-political conditions.

A situation he manages to frame and codify within the classical post-colonial parameters and symbolism of racism, poverty, and the corruption of power.

As audiences enter into the main gallery floor, they are confronted to the left with an immense image titled IziFebe Ezilele Kwisichenge Zitshele Kwisende Lengcinezelo (translated as Whores On The Edge Clinging on the Testicle of Oppression).

It’s a group portrait of prominent figures of contemporary South African politics.

Mabulu is an artist intent on confronting the ugly truth of our shared experience as South Africans.

» Imvo Zabantsundu/The Native Opinion is on at Commune.1, Cape Town, until April 20

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