Monday, December 16, 2013

'Madiba art' is unfashionable

Yuill Damaso's Night Watch
Predictably, when an image of Madiba’s corpse entered the public realm it wasn’t well received. Yuill Damaso’s contentious painting, Night Watch, which showed the late former president lying inert while political leaders performed an autopsy on him, caused a furore when it went on display at the Hyde Park shopping centre in 2010. The oil painting, rendered in a realistic manner echoing the artist’s source of inspiration – the Dutch master Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp – became headline news when it attracted a searing critique from the ANC.
“It is in bad taste, disrespectful and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society,” asserted senior party spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

Damaso had not intended to cause offence.
“I wanted to show that although Mandela was a hero, he was a mortal, a man nonetheless. I pictured him with his arm cut open to show that he was made of flesh and bones. We all have the potential to be like him, but we have to do something great (to achieve his status).”
Before the controversy had died down the artwork had a buyer: AngloGold Ashanti had put in a R400 000 bid, according to the artist. Damaso’s art appeared to be worth a lot more than the commercial galleries he had approached over the years had envisioned. He put their disinterest in his work to the fact that conceptual art is more highly prized. Undoubtedly, for as Mandela is highly regarded, the local gallery circuit haven't embraced art picturing the late leader. 'Madiba art', if you could call it that seems to cater for more populist tastes. It simply isn't fashionable in art circles, perhaps because it can't function as an elitist object and the 'sacredness' attached to it limits artists from dissecting it or challenging what it might represent. This may also account for gallerists desisting from 'profiting' from it - which is seen as almost vulgar and uncouth.
Steirn's photograph of Mandela

Night Watch was desirable for two reasons; its prominence in the media and the fact that it depicted a man who had become an iconic figure, representing and embodying the ethos of the South African miracle. Almost any works picturing this great leader tend to attract high prices; last week a photograph by the Australian photographer Adrian Steirn fetched a record R2 million from a New York dealer. The anonymous buyer stated that: “I am honoured to own what has already become an iconic image of one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known. In a single frame the photographer has captured the essence of dignity, principle, conviction and courage in this great man from whose life’s work and dedication to a greater cause we all have much to learn, and by which I am inspired daily.”
As this statement suggests, people are willing to pay any price to possess objects that evoke the qualities attached to Madiba.

Perhaps in acquiring such works there is a sense that an individual or institution is able to affirm their support of the values he espouses and represents, as well as those that they wish to attain in their own existence.
In feeding a market for Madiba products, do those who purchase objects parading his likeness perpetuate the commercialisation and exploitation of his image and perhaps, by doing so, erode the values he stands for?