Ayanda Mabulu’s alternative state of the (alien)ation
What would you expect from the artist whose name is most often preceded by ‘controversial South African’?
Last Thursday evening while the eyes and ears of millions of South Africans were focused on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s second state of the nation address in parliament in Cape Town, on the streets of Braamfontein a very different, but perhaps more relevant, expression of the actual state of the nation was about to start.
While a large and eager crowd waited outside the locked doors of the Kalashnikovv Gallery on Juta Street, in the back of the gallery it became clear that something unusual was afoot. But then what would you expect at the opening of a new show by the artist whose name is most often preceded by the words “controversial South African”?
Backstage, Ayanda Mabulu was enveloped in a cloud of impepho smoke, toting a scarily realistic AK47 replica, oblivious to the crowds outside and the forlorn doomed looking figure of a goat tethered to a tree in the courtyard a few metres away.
I should have known that this would be no ordinary art exhibition opening. After all, as Mabulu had told me two days before in his studio at Victoria Yards: “Don’t come there and expect a show because we’re not there to dance for you and we’re not there to perform for you, it’s not a circus. You might as well sit in your house and watch Days of Our Lives and Bold and the Beautiful than come here and sniff our contaminated oxygen because the space is ours. We’re going to burn impepho so that you can sniff and go home. There are these politics that we need to acknowledge and the realities that go along with that.”
Word had already begun to spread that Mabulu was going to slaughter the goat as the artist emerged and instructed the crowd to follow one of his assistants up the road to the corner of De Beer and De Korte streets. There the crowd and a group of performers blocked off traffic as four women holding umbrellas with unicorns emblazoned on them headed down the road singing a song whose lyrics translated as “Our land must return to us”.
Mabulu stood in front of the procession, holding the goat between his legs as the procession moved back to the gallery, much to the bemusement of Uber drivers and JMPD officers. By the time the crowd made its way into the gallery space, the smell of impepho was strong and eyes began to water as the ritual began to reach fever pitch and the goat began to bleat. If you listened carefully you could hear some art-world regulars making obvious and ill-considered comparisons to the work of theatre impresario Brett Bailey.
You see, the thing about Mabulu’s new show Ubuhle Bekhiwane Ziimpethu is that it has very little to do with the artworks on display – which can currently be seen at the Cape Town Art Fair – and everything to do with what happened on Thursday night. The title takes its name from a deep Xhosa expression, which warns that one should be wary of the easy allure of external beauty. Like the still life of figs displayed as part of the show and indeed the reassuring platitudes of presidents – it’s an appealing façade belying the rot beneath.
As Mabulu sees things, “it may be beautiful outside but its beauty is deceiving because inside it’s rotten and filled with worms. There’s too much pretentiousness, too much false image, too much maintenance of a façade with a yellow smile, yet you’re dying inside.”
The enactment of a traditional ritual that forms part of the lives of so many South Africans may seem mundane but not within the context of an art space, which Mabulu feels continues to perpetuate an unequal relationship between black artists and white audiences.
For Mabulu, “a black artist is someone whose creativity comes from a source of hunger. We create so that we can buy bread. We create so that we can be able to have swag. We create so that we can at least be able to dress nice so we don’t look like some superior monkeys with human abilities. We create so that we can have doors open for us in these fucked up creative spaces so that we can be part and parcel of those wine sippers and shit.” Within this context, Mabulu’s ritual was spurred by his belief that “there have been beautiful dandelions, roses, daffodils planted but they’re just covering the rot and so we now need to perform a ritual so that all those who have fallen for us to have this crap, those we’ve failed, can understand the situation we have right now and that situation can’t be maintained unfortunately.”
The wine sippers drew a collective breath of horror as Mabulu slaughtered the goat and then set fire to one of his still-lifes. When the noise and the singing of the performance was over what remained was a charred painting of figs and a gigantic celebratory portrait of Winnie Mandela recast as the Napoleon in David’s painting – draped with fabric made by MaXhosa label creator Laduma Ngxokolo. Unlike many of Mabulu’s previous paintings of political figures this one is celebratory, not condemning – much like David’s original was of the French general in his heyday.
For anyone who had seen the performance it was perhaps that which most stayed with them, reminding them that in Mabulu’s own conception he is “not an artist,” but rather “a spiritual facility, something beyond art. I can be a plant, I can be a grain of maize – if it’s going feed you then that’s what I am. I can be a butterfly, very colourful and beautiful if it’s going to inspire you. I can be a moon at night so that you can make beautiful love. I can be the stars if you’re in the dark or the sun to warm you. I’m a planet, I’m the universe.”
• Mabulu’s new works are on show at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. Ubuhle Bekhiwane Ziimpethu returns to Kalashnikovv Gallery in Braamfontein next week until March 5.