Arts and Culture
HALF ART: Mawande Ka Zenzile's Statecraft
“Timely” is an overworn adjective that, although intended as a compliment when describing an artist’s work, can do it an injustice. The works of art that have the greatest impact on me are both very much of their time and insistently out-of-time: that is, they respond to the world in which the artist lives but they also express a vision that extends beyond (or, to use a romantic word, “transcends”) the contemporary moment.
Such works belong to the present but will offer new insights to future viewers, readers and audiences. To be “timely”, by contrast, is to risk being bound in time; to be relevant today, and out-of-date tomorrow. This form of timeliness is doomed to become moribund – like King Goodwill Zwelithini, attributing xenophobic violence to a “third force” as if the Nats were still in power.
Mawande Ka Zenzile’s exhibition Statecraft is, however, timely in the best sense of that word. A body of work begun in 2014 and completed earlier this year, Statecraft is in productive dialogue with some of the debates and controversies that have dominated the headlines in South Africa over the last month. Yet it takes a “long view” of human history and is not limited to the fickleness of the news cycle.
Ka Zenzile is, for instance, curious about statues and the forms of power they represent. Chumane Maxwele flung human faeces at the University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes; Ka Zenzile paints in cow dung, along with earth, gesso and oil. The #RhodesMustFall campaign ranged from sophisticated argument to clumsy sloganeering; Ka Zenzile avoids polemic, preferring instead ambiguous images and titles.
In “Dangerous Truths”, he reproduces the famous group of United States marines raising a flag during the battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945 – first a photograph by Joe Rosenthal and subsequently a statue outside the Arlington military cemetery in Washington, DC. What is the dangerous truth to which the title refers?
Is it a subversion of narrow-minded patriotism – what Tom Eaton, writing recently about Washington’s memorials, criticised as the belief “that wars are about guns and muscles rather than burnt children”? Or is it a reluctant acceptance that, ultimately, might is right: that, despite the rise of China, the narrative of American dominance underscored by military and economic strength – which generations of US governments have propagandised as the expansion of “freedom” – is uncontestable?
Here it may be noted that the portrait “Makaveli”, patterned on Santi di Tito’s famous painting of the Florentine philosopher, makes explicit Ka Zenzile’s acknowledgement of Machiavellian theory. Another portrait based on a well-known photograph, this one of a humbled and haggard-looking Saddam Hussein during his trial for crimes against humanity, offers us a different view of power: eventually, even dictators are deposed.
“People need to be controlled (The Fall)”, in turn, depicts the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad: an iconic – or perhaps iconoclastic – image cherished by defenders of American intervention, but one representing a hollow victory in light of what has happened in Iraq since 2003. Again, the title could be read in various ways. Is this an ironic reference to the absolute “control” of Saddam’s regime, or is Ka Zenzile pointing out that one regime is simply followed by others – either an unstable government or the terror of ISIS?
Violent oppression of one group by another is, Ka Zenzile insists, an ancient human story. It may take the form of unabashed racism, as in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, whose hooded members make a couple of disturbing appearances in this exhibition. It may even entail slavery; in “Tenacity/Audacity”, a picture of a pyramid seems to remind us of this.
Symbols are contradictory signifiers – they mean different things to different people at different times (just ask a Japanese person about the American soldiers at Iwo Jima). The pyramids are markers of the tyranny of the pharaohs. But they have survived the ravages of time and have become revered. Imagine if the Rhodes statue had remained until climate change turned the UCT campus into a desert. Would some poet, centuries from now, describe him like Shelley’s Ozymandias?
* Statecraft is at STEVENSON Cape Town (160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock) until 30 May