Archive: Issue No. 49, September 2001

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Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
Acrylic on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
In Our Own Images
Acrylic on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
The Game of Soccer
Acrylic on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
Once Were Boys: In the Kitchen
Acrylic on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
So What?
Acrylic on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
At My Grandmother's Place
Oil on board

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila

Mandla Mabila
by Kathryn Smith (September, 2001)


Given half a chance, Mandla Mabila would play trumpet with one hand and paint with the other. Equally dedicated to teaching himself improvisational jazz techniques à la Miles Davis - "it's becoming obsessive", he quips - and completing his MA degree at Wits University, Mabila has become known for painting startlingly honest, powerful self-portraits that go some way towards creating new images that deal with disability rather than co-opting given representational systems. Working through autobiographical portraits and narrative scenarios based on childhood experiences and memories, Mabila's mission has to do with visibility rather than taking issue. As he says, "If you do make an issue, you've got a hell of a lot of work to do after that."

His visual language is often symbolic or metaphorical, at times verging on the surreal or fantastic. His oil on board works range from small-scale to medium format and now have become fairly large-scale. "When people look at paintings, especially by disabled people, the issue of scale is often not questioned. You don't really think about how a person's physical capabilities relate to the process. If people assume you can only make small paintings because you can't physically get to the top of large paintings, that's wrong," Mabila observes.


"I started drawing as soon as I got into primary school - when I was 10. Of course I had no idea it was art back then. We did not have art as a taught subject in the school although we had our English teacher, Mrs Bezuidenhoud, who used to organise mural painting sessions on weekends for us. This is probably where I developed an inclination toward painting. Fortunately at high school, art was offered as a subject and we were blessed with a motivated art teacher, Mrs Regina Mopatlana (her last name may have changed now). A lot of her motivation rubbed off on some of us and today I am still painting.

"My work involves a lot of disability activism particularly as a cultural practioner. I have been involved in campaigns on the Wits University campus to have better access for people on wheelchairs and this struggle continues in my paintings. Painting has a way of dealing with some of the frustrations and the pain that visits now and again. Painting for me does not stop pain and frustration but it puts it in perspective, and helps me understand and manage it, if that makes sense. While not entirely about disability my work has helped me deal with it effectively. My work also celebrates disability because it is such an enriching experience. The unique world view that one has as a disabled person can only enrich one's life. A life with disability is definitely worth living for me and many others I know. Along with these sentiments the images and perceptions of disability need to change not for change's sake but because most disabled people have moved on. My painting these days is about celebrating life itself with its humour, pain and lessons and boy, it's great to be part of it all. My new struggle now is to make sure that all the clubs and pubs in my area are accessible to people on wheelchairs ... this is crucial. I can truly say now disabled or not I am leading a full life and that is what it's about. Art does not give a shit whether we are disabled or not - it deals with our souls, just like jazz."


After a fairly low-key exhibition of paintings at the Bill Ainslie Gallery last year, Mabila's current solo show 'From Where I Am Sitting' at the Standard Bank Gallery has been greeted with considerable success. In a nice twist of fate for this jazz-obssessed painter, a visiting New Orleans filmmaker, here to document the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, bought The Game of Soccer, an allegorical tale derived from Mabila's memories of school football games, segregated according to students' disabilities. The painting has a spirit of contemporary Bruegel or Bosch, with the game deteriorating into a mini-battle where ghostly figures with birds' heads or on crutches fight over the ball. Mabila recounts that this was completely expected with these games, and being at a special education school where everything is designed around one's needs, did result in a sense of alienation (hence the white figures).

Audiences may be more familiar with Mabila's narrative paintings, featuring self-portraits in a variety of different situations. 'From Where I Am Sitting' features a new series called 'Once Were Boys', small monochromatic "painterly sketches" that are mostly white. Representing "fun stuff" he remembers from his Barberton childhood, Mabila has tried to equate black and white photography to introduce the issue of time to these, reminiscing about the excitement and boisterous behaviour which gets tempered with maturity.


After a national exhibition at Camouflage, Mabila was one of three finalists selected for the next round of the UBS Painting Prize, which took place in Switzerland last year. The work submitted won Mabila second prize overall (and the national prize), allowing him to get a new motorised wheelchair, ergonomically designed to suit his needs - "and this one has a hooter", he smirks. That glint in his eye is not unlike his expression in So What? which has him, cigarette dangling James Dean-style from the corner of his mouth, pushing his chair up a hill.

At My Grandmother's Place, a core work in Mabila's young oeuvre, "is a difficult painting to speak about", he admits. A domestic environment depicts the artist in a box on his chair, with a gag over his mouth, while an unidentified couple have sex in the background. "When I was growing up, I used to share a room with my uncle, who used to bring his girlfriends home. Sex wasn't something we ever spoke about, yet I used to have to be in the same room. It's about privacy, and the feeling that one doesn't have the power to speak about certain things."

Picking up on the issue of alienation, Leftovers is a poignant and unsettling representation of this sentiment, staged, as Mabila says, as "the scenario of imagining going on a date with myself". Depicted holding a slice of cake but wearing a muzzle, the self-portrait is a conflation of feelings of adjustment, self-doubt and conspicuousness Mabila experienced entering university for the first time. As with many of his paintings, represented objects are symbolic of particular cultural mores. In this case, a slice of cake is never something one would enjoy alone, while an extra plate for an absent other sinks into the background.


Mabila was the only visual artist from South Africa accompanying a dance group and other delegates to the multidisciplinary Art and Soul Festival of Disabled Arts in Los Angeles in 1999. Organised in conjunction with VS Arts, it was, according to Mabila, "simply about getting on with it - no shame, no apologies".

He was also a participating artist in the travelling exhibition curated by Terry Kurgan, 'Bringing Up Baby' in 1998. Me and My Grandmother tells the story of Mabila's first trip to Johannesburg in 1986 when he was in his mid-teens. Carried on her back, the pair tried to find Baragwanath hospital where Mabila subsequently stayed for about two years, undergoing some 12 operations that have since allowed him to stand and walk.


Mabila is working towards his MA exhibition and completing his dissertation, which focuses on the representation of disability in visual art, focusing on South Africa but using international examples as points of reference. Mabila is loath to define disability because "this happens far too often. It's not restricted, but rather culturally defined - it can be anything that stands out as different." Frida Kahlo and Tommy Motswai interest him, especially the question of integration, both visual and actual. A member of the Wits Jazz Ensemble, and a website designer in the Wits computer centre, he is also taking trumpet lessons online with a tutor in the US. "Miles was a painter too, but I don't like his paintings to be honest!" he grins, preferring to find a painterly equivalent for Davis's stripped down "cool" musical style, "picking up where words leave off". But his biggest, most immediate desire is to go to Cuba.

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