Statue of limitations: how did Madiba become Robert De Niro?
I grudgingly accept yet another dismal non-Mandela statue, and send thoughts and prayers to all the good sculptors out there
People are saying unkind things about the statue donated to the United Nations by Cyril Ramaphosa, but let’s give credit where credit is due: if you ever wondered what a Samuel L Jackson impersonator would look like doing an impression of Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, then this statue is absolute perfection.
Despite what you might assume by looking at the object, this isn’t the sculptors’ first attempt at making a statue. It’s not even their first go at Mandela: Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren are also responsible for the 9m colossus in the gardens of the Union Buildings, a literal monument to dismal political art and proof that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
That statue features sort-of-Mandela with his arms stretched out in a Christ-like gesture of compassion and welcome. The new one has upped the stakes, and the arms, by having Samuel L De Niro reaching for the skies: smiling down at the floor, his hands in the air, he gives the impression of a good-natured grandfather witnessing some sort of comical domestic disaster unfolding on the carpet in front of him, like a tea tray being dropped or someone tripping over the dog or Jacob Zuma being appointed as president by the ANC.
Every so often we read that funding to artists in SA is dwindling. When you look at awful, ham-fisted, bleedingly literal stuff like these not-really-Mandela statues, you might be tempted to think that dwindling funds are a damned good thing: the more bad artists who have to give up their art, the safer our eyeballs will be.
But of course it doesn’t really work like this. Less money for the arts means less money for all artists, good and bad alike. And given that bad art has a way of thrusting itself relentlessly into the foreground, much as crashing bores and sugar-addled children have a knack of dominating a room, all it really means is less good art.
Still, being an artist of any kind is a struggle, so perhaps I shouldn’t begrudge Prinsloo and Janse van Vuuren the sweet deal they seem to have with whichever collector of porcelain whippets and bronze cheetahs keeps commissioning them.
Instead, I will simply send my thoughts and prayers to all the sculptors out there making skilful, intelligent, unsold and unseen work and brace myself for the next few unveilings: Oliver Tambo with a helping of Joe Pesci; Walter Morgan Sisulu-Freeman; Matamela Cyril Obama-Knowles.