In The Passover, Richard Mudariki’s twist on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is flanked by various world leaders. Picture: SUPPLIED
In The Passover, Richard Mudariki’s twist on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is flanked by various world leaders. Picture: SUPPLIED

Selling a painting for more than $400m would ordinarily be an earth-shattering or defining moment in an artist’s career. If they are Zimbabwean dollars, however, the occasion serves as a bitter reminder of a dysfunctional economy rather than a rising creative one.

Richard Mudariki sold a work entitled, In Line, in 2008 – "the peak of the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. And when I received the cheque a month after it was written, it was worthless. That money would not buy you a T-shirt at the time," he recalls.

Now he is buying his first home. It is possible for artists to thrive in SA – the rapid expansion of the art scene has made it a land of milk and honey for artists from Zimbabwe and the rest of the continent.

The first proper survey of Mudariki’s art, Mutara Wenguva – Timeline, is being staged at the Sanlam Art Lounge in Johannesburg. He has been painting for 17 years and has gone under the radar while the art scene in SA focused on local artists.

Finally, Zimbabwean artists are enjoying their time in the sun. Kudzanai Chiurai is the subject of a retrospective at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s opening exhibition in September and every major gallery in SA represents an artist from Zimbabwe.

Stevenson represents Portia Zvavahera, Smac represents Gareth Nyandoro and others, and Barnard Gallery has just signed up Mudariki.

Not surprisingly, hyperinflation and the collapse of the Zimbabwean currency is a recurring motif in some of the work produced by the artists. Dan Halter has been weaving Z$100-trillion banknotes and Gerald Machona generated astronaut-type outfits made from a print of decommissioned banknotes.

This leitmotif evokes the sense of alienation, absurdity and corrupt logic that has disrupted life in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe’s rule.

"When I came to SA, I had all this content I brought with me from Zimbabwe, on the political turmoil," Mudariki says.

"I did comment on the status quo when I was in Zimbabwe. At Gallery Delta we did an exhibition called Post Election Selection…. But I needed the capacity to sit down and create a body of work," he says.

The cheque for $400m is framed and hangs in Mudariki’s cramped studio at Greatmore in Woodstock, Cape Town, serving as a quirky and painful reminder of what he left behind when he moved to SA in 2011.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, where access to paint, canvases and an art education were often beyond his reach, he only began making art in 1999 with paint given to him by a friend.

A painting from that year will form part of the survey. It is a small domestic scene depicting a woman, based on his mother, who is crocheting.

"My mother used to be a cross-border trader in SA. She used to sell these crochet things," Mudariki says.

In the work Reserve Bank of Corruption (2013) Mudariki has "corrupted" a banknote. His currency in the local art world has centred on a form of political satire in which he channels a diverse mix of western art influences, from Edvard Munch to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, into absurd tableaus.

The line of absurdity he ploughs is one in which political manipulation is made visible to viewers, challenging the idea of deception. He is somewhat of a latter-day jester; the stage (like a Medieval royal court) remains constant, where different political narratives relating to South African politics are played out, exaggerated and distorted.

 In the Battle for Cape Town (2012), Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is seen jousting with an anonymous black opponent. The Medieval-like vibe fits in with the way Mudariki evokes different epochs in his art, assuring viewers that these political shenanigans are nothing new.

There is no hidden meaning in Mudariki’s art. When corruption is known, there is no need to employ encoded language. The Puppeteer (2017) presents a Jacob Zuma-like character surrounded by puppets and props.

An enduring analogy between politics and theatre defines Mudariki’s art through a juxtaposition of the backstage and front of stage. In Mudariki’s theatrical universe, the magic show as well as the tricks behind it are seen.

In The Trick (2017), two men are hidden inside a box used for the traditional magic trick where a body is sawn in half. This brings the Gupta leaks to mind; the public is aware of what has taken place "off-stage", although the veritable "act" continues.

Mudariki’s art might draw from historical imagery, but in showing these "double views", he speaks to the posttruth phenomenon, where people are exposed to various "truths" and can pick which one they want.

In his spoof on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which features Mugabe in the central position flanked by Nelson Mandela and Zuma, and in other works such as Illusion of Freedom (2015), which presents a naked woman sunbathing in an African idyll, Mudariki exploits painting and its conflicted history of employing the illusion of reality to shore up positions of power.

"I feel that painting is the most real image that can be produced in the world," comments the artist.

• Mutara Wenguva – Timeline is at the Sanlam Art Lounge, 11 Alice Lane, Sandton until September 9.

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