Crude art for our crude times

A pow­er­house new show at Du Sable

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A + E - Lori Wax­man Lori Wax­man is a free­lance critic. ctc-arts@chicagotri­bune.com Twit­ter @chitribent

Nazi flag and an­other of Zuma per­form­ing a sex­ual act on the pow­er­ful businessman Atul Gupta.

Only one such picture is on view at the DuSable. “Spear Down My Throat (Pornog­ra­phy of Power)” fea­tures Zuma, who was forced to re­sign as pres­i­dent last Fe­bru­ary af­ter rul­ing for nearly a decade amid charges of cor­rup­tion, as a cack­ling cir­cus ring­mas­ter, his pants around his an­kles. His part­ner is a nasty, hye­na­headed man sport­ing 18th-cen­tury Euro­pean cloth­ing. In be­tween them, and ser­vic­ing them both sex­u­ally, is a black woman naked but for the sad­dle on her back and the rope around her neck.

If all of this reads like ou­tra­geous po­lit­i­cal car­i­ca­ture done with oil paint and a bit of gold leaf, it is. Some of the pol­i­tics at play will be hard for an Amer­i­can au­di­ence to dis­cern, in­clud­ing the tribal prej­u­dices raised by dress­ing Zuma in tra­di­tional Zulu skins. It helps to know, too, that Zuma was once charged with the rape of an HIV+ ac­tivist and that he claimed to have show­ered af­ter­ward to lessen the chance of in­fec­tion. The paint­ing is so over the top, though, that just about any­one ought to be able to fig­ure out that Zuma is be­ing con­demned as the metaphor­i­cal rapist of South Africa’s poor black masses, in ca­hoots with the de­scen­dants of white colo­nial­ists. The ANC logo, fly­ing at the peak of the big tent, sig­nals the brand that’s in charge.

Is the paint­ing aes­thet­i­cally com­plex? Not even close. In­deed, it is far less ac­com­plished on a tech­ni­cal level than two equally fu­ri­ous paint­ings from 2015, each of which cen­ters of the head of a black man, bri­dled and drool­ing from the metal bits tear­ing at their mouths, skin con­torted into sickly ten­dons, eyes tight with pain. Yel­low crime scene tape bears words that rage against the po­lice. “We Can’t Breathe” is sten­ciled in blood red across the bot­tom. The sin­cere hor­ror of this pair is im­pos­si­ble to shake, un­like the ju­ve­nile ex­cess so shame­lessly mar­shalled in “Spear Down My Throat.”

Some­where in be­tween these two ex­tremes — the care with which Mab­ulu paints the tor­tured men and the crude­ness of his po­lit­i­cal car­toons — is an enor­mous paint­ing of Nel­son Man­dela, his face beam­ing out from a can of Lucky Star pilchards, a pop­u­lar and in­ex­pen­sive tinned fish. Vi­cious slurs scrawl around, the can bears the words “SOLD OUT,” and yet the face of Man­dela ap­pears an­gel­i­cally com­posed from a rain­bow of brush­strokes. The very ex­is­tence of a cri­tique of the late Man­dela, the leg­endary anti-apartheid ac­tivist and South Africa’s first black head of state, will come as a sur­prise to many view­ers, but it is a real reck­on­ing amid younger gen­er­a­tions frus­trated with the state of the coun­try to­day. The suc­cess of “Lucky Star Green” is its abil­ity to hold all of this in one place: mythol­ogy and re­al­ity, love and rage.

Two years ago, be­fore the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, I might more eas­ily have dis­missed Mab­ulu’s most overtly provoca­tive ges­tures as be­ing at best use­less, at worst fun­da­men­tally dam­ag­ing to pub­lic dis­course. Back then I also tried to in­still in my children the need to speak re­spect­fully with and about those with whom one ve­he­mently dis­agreed. In the face of the grow­ing list of the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions—most re­cently the ef­fort to de­fine gen­der as im­mutable, which if suc­cess­ful would erad­i­cate fed­eral recog­ni­tion and pro­tec­tion of trans­gen­der peo­ple—I’ll ad­mit that I have re­lin­quished this prac­tice of ci­vil­ity. Yes, we need to de­bate and rea­son and lis­ten and con­vince. But we also need to vent and be heard and be af­firmed. My kids are al­lowed to curse out the pres­i­dent of the United States, as they hear their mother do. As Ayanda Mab­ulu does his coun­try’s politi­cians, with can­vas and paint, some­times ap­plied with a brush shoved into the muz­zle of a ma­chine gun.

Is it sub­tle or so­phis­ti­cated? No. But nei­ther are the worst in­jus­tices.

Nearly lost amid the wrath of “Trou­ble­maker” are a hand­ful of gen­uinely ten­der paint­ings. Af­fec­tion, un­like fury, is quiet, and here it comes as wel­come respite. A pair of col­lages, all blocky col­ors and bo­hemian cou­pling, of­fers a paean to Sophi­a­town, a black neigh­bor­hood in Jo­han­nes­burg famed for its jazz and blues that was razed un­der apartheid. A sen­si­tively ren­dered dip­tych of min­ers march­ing down a city street of­fers trib­ute to those who were killed in the 2012 Marikana mas­sacre, when South African se­cu­rity forces opened fire on wild­cat strik­ers.

It is “The Afro­naut,” how­ever, which un­like any other paint­ing here gives me hope. In it an as­tro­naut car­ries a horned black man limp and naked in his arms. The back­ground is flam­ing red. The words “Blak Lives Mat­ter” — a lo­cal spell­ing for what is no longer a strictly Amer­i­can move­ment — blare out ur­gently. It’s a pi­eta from the fu­ture, a fu­ture in which ideas travel, com­pas­sion for all bod­ies is the norm, and black lives mat­ter to ev­ery­one.

“Trou­ble­maker: Art Is Our Only Hope” runs through Fe­bru­ary 2019 at the DuSable Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory, 740 East 56th Place, 773-947-0600, www.dus­able­mu­seum.org.

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AYANDA MAB­ULU

A de­tail of “We Can't Breathe,” a 2015 work by Ayanda Mab­ulu, on dis­play at the Du Sable Mu­seum.

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