cape reviews

Ayanda Mabulu

Ayanda Mabulu at Commune.1

By Athi Mongezeleli Joja
14 March - 20 April. 0 Comment(s)
ziFebe ezilele kwisichenge zitshele kwisende lengcinezelo (Whores on the edge clinging on the testicle of oppression)

Ayanda Mabulu
ziFebe ezilele kwisichenge zitshele kwisende lengcinezelo (Whores on the edge clinging on the testicle of oppression), 2013. Mixed media on canvas .

In the time where dialogue sutures our moral and ethical aptitude, Andile Mngxitama, on the contrary, as an opening speaker in Ayanda Mabulu’s exhibit ‘The Native Opinion’ at Commune 1, called for the end of dialogue. He argued that in fact Mabulu’s work invites us to this termination of the dialogical charade. This is dialogue with the status quo. Mngxitama is neither a hysterical liberal nor dubious militant yelling ‘stop talking and start doing’. Rather, he understands and locates the over-saturation of dialogue as part of the schematic obscurity of the black grammar of suffering. That is, it disarticulates and passivizes formidable radicalization of direction, since the CODESSA negotiations that gave us our ‘negotiated revolution’.

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Mngxitama is also quick to substantiate that his ‘end of dialogue’ position shouldn’t be confused with the thoughtless call to action. He seems aware that we don’t live in times of inactivity but rather, to use Jared Sexton’s words, “a surplus of plans”. We live in a paradoxical world, where too much talk is proscribed yet dialogical methods are encouraged. We neither lack activism nor negotiators. But somehow a systematic famishing of the texture of discourse surmounts. Here, Mngxitama argues rather for what seems to be a Heideggerian approach: an attempt to understand ‘the black problem’ in its totality. The point isn’t to forfeit the dialogical currency as such, but to subvert the dominant discursive plots that thwart and dissuade meaningful ideas.

But isn’t art the medium that inherently invites and inspires dialogue? And how does Mabhulu invite this anti-status-quo political disengagement? These questions anticipate the now hackneyed question: what is art? I have personally never known or settled on a particular answer to this question. However, in our contextual experience, we can safely say Albie Sachs’ Preparing Ourselves For Freedom aptly outlined a supposedly relevant meaning for art. This latter text, which is also the view of the ANC, is not only central in our art discourse; it subsidizes and subjectifies it. That means we constantly have to deal and negotiate with the political discourse that frames it. Their projection is not independent but is a tentacle from a certain body that produces knowledge through its interpellative power.

Mngxitama’s wager is that the enumerable ethical and political demands and its ensemble of questions are always already mute in the face of structural violence. And, more evidently, these questions are impossible if the oppressing system as embodied by the ANC and civil societies are still the voices of reason. The current predicament is that at the subterranean levels of humanitarian inquiry lurks the restless spectre of the black grammar of suffering that repudiates consensus and negotiations. Furthermore, such grammar is unintelligible, if not ‘unrealistic’, in the face of discourse and liberal-minded epistemological regimes. Black grammar of suffering’s articulatory power is its ability to frame a discourse that protects and encourages a true black liberatory agenda.

Biko’s Lecture

Ayanda Mabulu
Biko’s Lecture 2011, Mixed media on paper,


Ayanda Mabulu’s work, according to the framing demands of post-1990 art discourse, can be characterized as that which postures against the ‘ordinary’. Maybe Njabulo Ndebele might call it “the quintessence of obscene social exhibitionism.” It resists being trapped in the fetishistic realm of humanized blackness, or worse it disavows the pretentions of liberation.  It asks us to turn our heads away from the ideological dreams of rediscovered selfhoods by exposing the rancid abyss of black suffering still lurking underneath our feet. Isn’t this the general paradox of our times from human rights to multiracialism? Neither does he seem patient enough to frolic with subtleties where gratuitous violence treats majority of people as underdogs.

But there’s also a very comic element in Mabulu that finds itself smothered by the overbearing, violent exhibitionism. His titles and his scribbles have their own life of insensitive hilarity. Or one can still talk of ‘the aesthetic’ in the midst of the towering vulgarity of his subject matter. In fact the aesthetic significance of his form – to turn the formalist’s idea around – is impossible without the insensible content. We can also claim that his work partakes (but from a different space) in the generalized and disavowed conversations embossed on our streets, walls and train doors. Despite the commercial festishization of ‘the streets’, which by the way is another form of taming, Mabhulu’s re-appropriation of this language, especially as a tool to dispel its own current impasse, bespeaks a new germinating recalcitrance. He transposes the expressions of the anonymous into the gallery space with all its dirty languages and rawness. But of course the moneyed will purchase them. 

In ‘The Native Opinion’ we see all of Mabulu’s energies through a synthesized stylistic continuity and consolidation. The militancy in his content might be trivialized as daydreaming but its consistency attempts to keep up with the restlessness of masses. Such exhibitionism reeks of the now defunct ‘social worker’ type, rendered insignificant in the wake of 1994. Mabhulu’s work, with its bold and uncompromising banality, challenges the public discourse’s complicity and embarrassment with radical change. It hides so conveniently behind artistic subliminality because it is humiliated by the impatient actions of ya basta. It camouflages its own urgency so as to narcissistically prevent pissing off the collectors and the market. News flash: every single production is not safe from the invisible hand of the market.    

There’s a scene in Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 3 where gangsters wait to kill a woman, Chai Chai, in a cabaret. Chan and Tucker (the cops) interrupt the scene by trying to save the lady; the gangsters from the audience start shooting real bullets. The audience claps because they think this is part of the performance. Similarly, in the case of Mabhulu’s exhibition, the art audience will sip wine and purchase works thinking this is part of normal routine. However, when they awaken from their somnambulant state they will perhaps realize it wasn’t a joke. As Mngxitama said, radical art is always available for appropriation but such isn’t reason enough to jettison it.

In Whores On The Edge Clinging On The Testicle of Oppression, Mabulu portrays a pastiche of the Last Supper, in the mode of the debaucherous and disorderly events of political figures. The last supper biblically is supposedly the event of betrayal that leads to the Crucifixion. For Mabhulu this isn’t the case. Unlike in its source, we can’t locate the central figure of Christ; the One is in the many. If he exists he’s among the corrupt and catastrophic. Most importantly, Mabhulu turns what we know as peaceful into unruly and chaotic. The figure of Judas disappears into the multitude of the violent and ideologically backward.  Mabhulu renders the whole establishment as a circus of betrayal, perhaps even going further to implicate Christ as the instigator of his conspiratorial sabotage.

This image of a betrayed national vision is still the most difficult thing to digest in the popular imagination. We still look for Judas by procrastinating against taking up the cudgels with a failed ‘idea’. Mabhulu tells that Christ’s own reticence about a singular culprit should infer the failure of the general idea or even Christ’s own untruthfulness. The point is that the problem isn’t with Judas as such; his charlatanism was already inscribed within the congregation’s own failure. One can think of this in these three events: Judas’ betrayal, Christ’s mysterious ‘I am leaving’ and Peter’s denial of Christ three times. The political failure as well is a failure of the idea, rather than simply of individual proponents of it. At the same time, this failure cannot be construed in mythological fashion, as the wrath of the ancestors – it is deliberate and calculated. Therefore any emergence of rectification as embodied by Biko’s black consciousness or the restless masses killed for demanding a decent wage is subject to extermination and violence. Mabulu shows us these realities in pictures of Biko and the Marikana.