29.09.2014 – 30.10.2014
The AVA Gallery, Cape Town
As a child, Jonathan Shapiro aka Zapiro would draw the bogeymen from his nightmares as a way of purging his restless sleep of them. Today, his drawings are a kind of satire-therapy for many who delight in these widely published political cartoons, depicting a South Africa that he says is ‘crazier than anything my imagination could conjure up’. Judge Albie Sachs described the potency of satire best when he said – ‘Humour is one of the great solvents of democracy. It permits the ambiguities and contradictions of public life to be articulated in non-violent forms. It promotes diversity. It enables a multitude of discontents to be expressed in a myriad of spontaneous ways. It is an elixir of constitutional health.’
‘Democrazy’, at the AVA is a 20 year retrospective of Zapiro’s work since the landmark election of 1994. In this period he has had 4500 cartoons published in newspapers, from which 450 were compiled to make up this year’s book – Democrazy, the source of the exhibition’s name and content. His brilliant, unapologetic, acerbic style is accentuated in this darkly comical review of the last two decades of politics in post-apartheid South Africa. The exhibition is loosely organised around certain themes such as foreign affairs, health issues, sport, white privilege, etc. As I walk around, taking in each frame; all of its nuances, texts, drawing skill and obvious outbursts – I realise the fearlessness of the artist, in his quest to reveal our developing democracy’s successes, and its failures to unravel, reform and forge ahead. He boldly uncovers the dark deposit that runs deep in these politics of recovery and development.
Showing the works of the hugely popular Zapiro seems slightly uncharacteristic for the AVA – a non-profit, public benefit space that generally nurtures emerging artists. It leads one to sense a hint of audience development at play here. Having editioned digital prints for sale off the walls for high prices, shifts these cartoons from the mass-consumed, daily comic realm to a fine art one. The liminal and ephemeral quality of the cartoon medium itself is fascinating and is enhanced by the rare glimpse at Zapiro’s creative process through the inclusion of several of his sketchpads in the exhibition. Exhibiting his rough works, highlights Zapiro’s gift for an economy of expression, his creation of an easily read visual language – rendered from constant drawing and conceptualising – that sensitively encapsulates the complexities and nuances of South Africa.
The exhibition is an uplifting and enlightening one that speaks to many of us. I do however have to constantly remind myself that the views and perspectives represented here, whilst seemingly (and often actually) cutting to the truth – are only representative of a certain brand of truth belonging to a narrow margin of left wing, liberal, English-speaking, and educated populace. This is an important aspect of satire to remember, especially when we find it enjoyable and funny. Our laughter comes from a place of catharsis and agreement in the view being illustrated; the moment we laugh, we establish an opinion. It is however just that – an opinion.
Zapiro’s visual activism constantly pushes the notion of solidarity and firmly holds leaders accountable for their actions. The moment he perceives a public figure to be straying from these ideals of just and responsible leadership, they fall prey to his pen. This can be seen clearly when we compare his portrayals of Mandela and Zuma. Mandela is often drawn as the sun, a gentle giant, a benevolent moral compass or messiah-like figure (Madiba Planet, 2009; Mandela Era Sunset, 2009). On the other hand, Zuma is characterised in a wholly negative and scathing way; a corrupt devolution from Mandela (Evolution of Democracy, 2010), and an unjust leader. Whilst the contemporary saint status bestowed upon Mandela by Zapiro is reflective of popular opinion, his depictions of Zuma are not. Drawn with a showerhead attached to his head since his 2006 rape-trial admission, Zuma’s caricature is partisan. As he is mocked in Zapiro’s cartoons, so too are the majority who support him – and the (albeit faulty) democratic process that enabled his presidency. What overrides my seeing Zapiro’s assault via ridicule as unproductive for a democracy in development is the driving force behind it – a corrective purpose. What is being attacked is that which, according to the artist, needs reforming.
The infamous Rape of Lady Justice (2008) shows Zuma unbuckling his pants, preparing to rape the justice system (Lady Justice), as four black men representing the ANCYL, SACP, ANC and COSATU hold her down. Whilst this cartoon is very effective in asserting it’s message, it reprehensibly makes a mockery of rape by utilising it as a vehicle for humour. It also somehow puts forward the perspective that a group of black men would have no better moral judgement than to engage in such an act. A similar issue crops up in some of Zapiro’s sport themed cartoons that employ machismo and homophobia for comic effect by comparing sporting losses to buggery (Wallaby’s Protea Problem, 2006). These crude caricatures of gender relations and sexual abuse, skirt along the bounds of bad taste, and perhaps his thunderous justice-seeking driving force has led him somewhat astray in these instances. Be that as it may, his overriding thrust is that of instigating awareness, conversation and ultimately positive, social evolution – this remains clear, even amongst momentary missteps within his extensive and ardent campaign for social justice.
Zuma subsequently sued and later dropped the ZAR 5 million lawsuit against Zapiro for defamation of character. Whilst many of the opinions presented by this cartoon were not new and already part of a larger public debate happening in the media, there is an obvious clout to the physicality and imagery of this ‘depicted-truth’ that goes far deeper than mere verbal debate can. Yes, Zuma was publically acquitted of all rape charges, but Zapiro’s illustration of the shady nature of this acquittal was a truly powerful force in showing up how the President – whose main role is to protect the constitution and thereby, freedom of speech – fell far short of exemplifying an ideal democratic and just leader. Are we done here? (2012), elucidates the capacity of the ‘everyman’ (as symbolised by Zapiro himself, the political satirist) to ‘bring down’ the president with the help of Lady Justice.
Zapiro is a potent combatant in the service of freedom of speech in this country. His work is exceptionally brave whichever way you look at it. Arguably, the threats lobbed at him from the highest political powers can be worn as proudly as the multitude of awards he has garnered over his long and memorable career. They are testament to how far he is willing to go in his liberal crusade for social justice – and represent the authority he has drummed up for this admirable purpose. He is a white man, harshly and publicly criticising a largely black government and in this country ravaged by racial inequality, a certain kind of fearlessness as well as a crucial sensitivity need to be (and are successfully) employed by him as court jester. Through both complex and overt visual, piercing humour, Zapiro’s readers are invited to air their political and social frustrations as well as perceive and engage in discussion of alternative realities. This is the potency of his pen and the exhibition has deftly highlighted and paid tribute to that truth-seeking offensive.