Crude art for our crude times
A powerhouse new show at Du Sable
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.
A new home for horoscopes and more
The Sunday Horoscopes, Word Game and Bridge are now part of the Chicago Tribune’s Puzzle Island pullout. Find it every Sunday in the Life+Style section.
A detail of “We Can't Breathe,” a 2015 work by Ayanda Mabulu, on display at the Du Sable Museum.