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Setting up new relationships

If there is a painting you should pore over on a first date, When Shall We 3? (Scenes from the Life of Nijinga Mbanda) by Kimathi Donkor should probably be it. Certainly, depending on how the conversation flows and what twists and turns it makes after viewing the artwork, on view at his exhibition at Gallery Momo, Joburg, might determine whether you are compatible. It’s such a loaded painting, with so many triggers for conversations about gender, race and history, that it would provide the ultimate litmus test for a new couple. Not that this is what Donkor had in mind. This fairly reserved Englishman, who has been in the South Africa for the past month on residency at Gallery Momo, doesn’t seem to be totally aware of how provocative When Shall We 3? (Scenes from the Life of Nijinga Mbanda) is, well certainly in this country where race and colonial history continue to be hotly debated topics.

When Shall We 3? (Scenes from the Life of Nijinga Mbanda) by Kimathi Donkor
When Shall We 3? (Scenes from the Life of Nijinga Mbanda) by Kimathi Donkor

There will be those in our population who will cheer at the sight of a white woman being used as chair by a black woman. But there might be questions about why she uses this woman to elevate herself to the level of the white man she appears to be deeply in conversation with. That the white woman in question is clad in a sort of dominatrix outfit, echoing the British artist Allen Jones’ famous Table and Chair sculptures of women in saucy outfits functioning as furniture items, does complicate the scene somewhat too. Is this some bizarre threesome, where the two women are role-playing for the man sitting in the chair?

If you ask Donkor, he will probably respond with a smile; he won’t confirm or deny anything – he just sets the scene. Or rather, he re-sets the scene – the inspiration for this painting being a 16th century engraving by the Italian priest, Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi that depicts a pivotal moment in African colonial history, when the Angolan Princess Nijinga (or Nzinga) meets the Portuguese envoy De Sousa and asserts her resistance or affirms her status by refusing to sit on the floor, using one of her servants instead as support.

“You could see her as the forerunner to the Angolan independence movement,” observes Donkor.

Donkor’s reinvention of Cavazzi’s image is channelled through a variety of other significant art historical sources. Aside from the reference to Allen Jones’ sculpture, the painting is also inspired by David Hockney’s most famous portrait, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, which also sees figures composed by an open window.  The landscape in the background of Donkor’s painting, of which the window offers a view, is a replica of a painting by the Dutch painter Frans Post, who was tasked with capturing scenes of Brazil shortly after the Dutch had defeated the Portuguese there. All these historical and art references are then encapsulated into this contemporary scene, shifting the dynamics between the subjects and their histories.

Donkor working his studio. Photograph by Zanele Mashinini
Donkor working his studio. Photograph by Zanele Mashinini

Aside from Donkor’s interest in black heroines, the scene between Nijinga and De Sousa fixated him because it captured the power struggle, not only of that time and place in history, but a pattern that would play out for centuries.

“It set the agenda for the future: his attempt to subordinate Nijinga; her decision to resist. The interplay between race, class, gender and sexuality is summed up in this dynamic.”

Art plays a pivotal role in capturing these shifting conditions, or how they are set by society, says Donkor.

“All of these questions about these relationships between people are mediated through the visual methods, through dress, posture and physical relationships.”

Donkor sees his role as an artist to shake up these set scenes, alter them and swap the players around to discover where the meaning of the image lies, and how it can be challenged. His exhibition, Some Clarity of Vision, contains a number of these ‘history’ paintings that have not only been transplanted in modern times, but the characters’ roles have been switched around. Ultimately, he wants to ignite debate and conversation.

“That is what the panting is there for; they are there to provoke and stimulate thoughts and feelings.”  – @IncorrigibleCorrigall subsidised by Gallery Momo

Some Clarity of Vision shows at Gallery Momo, Johannesburg until October 10.

By Mary Corrigall


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