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Art as response to society

Business & Arts is a monthly column by Michelle Constant, CEO of Business and Arts South Africa (BASA).

The work of Zimbabwean-born Richard Mudariki, under the title of Mutara Wenguva (Time Line), is being shown at the Sanlam Art Lounge until 9 September. Mudariki, in his latest works, seems to be channelling Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century Dutch artist. The latter’s fantastical images were a dark, dark reflection on the society of that period. Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado in Madrid, is a hellish description of a world in turmoil, driven by politics, power, religion and greed. Mudariki’s latest works perform to a similar tune.

In The Puppeteer, Mudariki describes a fiendish world, one of broken ‘junk’ puppets, of naked men and women waiting in line, herded by red carpet velvet ropes, as they enter the underworld of a circus tent and its puppeteer ringmaster. The ‘audience’, queueing to see the ‘earthly delights’ of the circus tent, seem less about to enter a space of entertainment but rather as though they are journeying to their own death sentence. Likewise, his work Signs of the Times is a brutal and quite horrific assessment of South African xenophobia – the brick, the South African flag and a tongue of sharpened, deadly steel being the weapons of choice.

Corruption warrior

It’s a difficult piece and captures the anger and fear that has been omnipresent in the conversation. That the word hate is scrawled repeatedly in the painting is a message of such brutality that, as a viewer, I am appalled and mortified by my own nationhood, and our flag. Mudariki responds to our world with a withering eye, a harsh response to the Machiavelian activities in South Africa currently. And yet the nakedness of the audience is tenderly addressed in The Puppeteer, as is the sculptor working in stone in the work Shona Sculptor. 

Could I have these works in my home? I don’t think so. I do have a gorgeous Mudariki work of a male jester bowing to a woman. Having said this, I believe that these are works that everyone should see. The visceral response to a society gone terribly wrong, that one feels when one views the Bosch collection, is much what I felt when I first saw some of Mudariki’s new works. They speak truth to power, but they also offer a reprieve with works like the wonderful and uplifting Corruption Warrior. In viewing the work, one is reminded of the lyrics from a Muyanga song, one that refers to ancient Indian poetry. ‘So deafly they listen, so blindly they see,’ he sings. It’s time many politicians spent a little time in the art world, if they decoded the images, they might start to understand how people are feeling.

Richard Mudariki | “The Puppeteer” | Acrylic on canvas | 150 x 300 cm

On a slightly different (and perhaps more uplifting) note, the recent Artist Proof Studio (APS) student work in response to the Strauss & Co Pierneef, A Collector’s Passion at the Turbine Art Fair this year, was a real joy to behold. The artists were introduced to the themes of artist Pierneef in his etchings and lithographs, and then responded to those works and the conversation. I have to declare my interest here, I bought a wonderful work, for a nominal fee, from an APS student, which delicately poises the questions of nature vs. urban, past vs. present. The APS responses to the classical works of Pierneef are clever, interesting, diverse, and they remind us how we can answer difficult questions of the past with grace and intelligence. The students do us proud.

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