Questions of complicity: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s installation on the Marikana massacre was at the Joburg Art Fair. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/KEVIN SUTHERLAND
Questions of complicity: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s installation on the Marikana massacre was at the Joburg Art Fair. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/KEVIN SUTHERLAND

Ayanda Mabulu’s pop-up-thing-artwork at last weekend’s Joburg Art Fair, in which Nelson Mandela (RIP) is depicted as a Nazi on a swastika flag, is so-so as an artwork — but the ham-fisted reaction turned it into a complex event.

In 2013, the last time Mabulu offended people at the fair, the organisers removed his depiction of Jacob Zuma crushing a Marikana miner’s head. Renowned photographer David Goldblatt threatened to pull out in response, and the work was displayed again. But Goldblatt died this year and was unable to save the fair’s bacon by giving it an alibi to offend.

If fascism is part of a metonymic chain at the end of which is any forceful behaviour, Mabulu made a startling point. So sanctified has Mandela become that people are prepared to go to any end to protect his image, including the direct violence of ripping down a flag, or the systemic violence of reaching for the rule book.

WHAT IS MORE FAKE, MANDELA’S DISTORTED VISAGE ON THE MINT’S COINS OR DEPICTING HIM AS A NAZI?

The spurious rule employed this time by the Joburg Art Fair was that the "work" was not endorsed by its organisers.

The assumption made by many that the work was directed at Mandela is false. Mabulu is expressing one possible implication of his being called a sellout by so many Twitter activists nowadays. Taking down the work implies the organisers don’t want those dots to be connected. It was like taking the canary out of the mine just in case it drops dead.

Talking of mines, one of the most viewed works was 2018 FNB Art Prize winner Haroon Gunn-Salie’s installation on the Marikana massacre. Audiences are made up of two dozen people packed into a black cube surrounded by curtains, which quickly recreates the stifling air of an underground mine.

On the ceiling are the contours of the koppie on which 34 workers were killed by police officers in 2012. In the darkness, a soundscape begins: 15 minutes of everyday noises, the chiming of cowbells, the singing of the workers followed by the staccato of rifle shots.

To be told to be quiet is to be turned into a child, perhaps one who gets hidden from the police action. But Gunn-Salie’s installation turns your silence into the possibility that you could also be a scabbing mineworker, a sellout who works during a strike.

The audience in the cube with me complied, but what struck me as was their lack of facial expression, as though we were all keeping our feelings to ourselves.

This lack of expression was echoed across the fair.

The Everard Read Gallery corner had the usual display of gigantic sculptures reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, but the first one visible was a huge head by Lionel Smit, with its gaze turned inwards, noncommittal.

Every year more African galleries are represented at the Joburg Art Fair. At the Addis Fine Art gallery’s stand, there were a series of paintings of tall, stately Ethiopian women, depicting them as exemplars of strength, life and hope. But they all have expressionless faces. When I asked the guide why they all looked the same, he didn’t understand, responding that Ethiopia has six dozen ethnic groups.

There was enough emotion and fire in the usual expressionist pieces, almost all worth the visitors’ time and money.

Zimbabwean Helen Teede’s untitled piece was one of the highlights of the fair. On the whole, the quality was greater this year, and the diversity bodes well for the future of art on the continent.

But not many portraits at the fair had the vivid expressions on the ubiquitous faces of Mandela, especially at the SA Mint’s stand. On one coin he looked angry, but this was probably because the likeness was not very good, as they weren’t on any of the others either. In the midst of dexterous art, this fakery was quite jarring for those who didn’t just take the quick tour needed for the complimentary glass of champagne.

What is more fake, Mandela’s distorted visage on the Mint’s coins or depicting him as a Nazi?

If Hirst taught one thing with Wreck of the Unbelievable, it is that the unbelievable is always possible. Mandela was no fascist, but censoring the possibility that he might be means that something is hidden — which paradoxically makes it believable.

And by allowing the coins with Mandela’s scowl, instead of his customary smile, to be displayed, the fair says it’s okay to depict him as somebody that only vaguely resembles him, but it is not okay to depict him as a Nazi. The Nazi iconography becomes sacrosanct in this way.

Inside Gunn-Salie’s installation, one is aware that beyond the koppie stretch the skyscrapers of Sandton, the company headquarters, lawyer offices, banks and luxury malls of the capitalist elite. Their guns will mow you down if you strike in the wrong way.

So stay calm and keep on working, keep on scabbing, and keep on buying art.

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