A graphic painting of South Africa’s president has people fired up, but for all the wrong reasons

Ayanda Mabulu stands in front of his latest artwork, on display at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The work depicts South African president Jacob Zuma in a sex act with businessman  Atul Gupta, who is said to have close business and political ties with the president.
Ayanda Mabulu stands in front of his latest artwork, on display at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The work depicts South African president Jacob Zuma in a sex act with businessman Atul Gupta, who is said to have close business and political ties with the president.
Image: Cornell Tukiri
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Nelson Mandela once said, “When you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. When you speak to him in his own language—you speak to his heart.”

Language goes beyond the mother tongue. The essence is method of communication, and if you communicate with someone on a plain they do not operate in, then you miss the mark of what you were trying to do. This is where the highly controversial South African artist, Ayanda Mabulu, recently failed.

The Johannesburg-based fine artist’s most recent work depicts South African president Jacob Zuma engaged in a sexual act in the cockpit of an airplane with Atul Gupta, a prominent South African businessman. In the windscreen, another plane is seen approaching on a collision course with the pair. Revealed in the run-up to the country’s most competitive local elections in two decades, the work came at an especially fraught time for the country. And while Mabulu used a language we all seemingly can understand to communicate his message, that of art, his message was lost in the violent nature of its delivery.

Mabulu has been unsparing in his work before. In 2010, he created Ngcono Ihlwempu Kunesibhanxa Sesityebi (Xhosa for Better Poor than a Rich Puppet) which featured graphic portrayals of Zuma and the much beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He grabbed South Africa’s attention in 2012 with Umshini Wami (Weapon of Mass Destruction). The painting showed current president Jacob Zuma doing a traditional Zulu dance, with legs lifted and private parts revealed. This was in the same year that another South African artist, Brett Murray, caused a stir with The Spear, a painting that similarly featured the president of the president with his genitalia exposed. Murray’s work was subsequently defaced as it hung in an upmarket Johannesburg gallery.

“I’m engaging my elder, in the language of my mother tongue, the language that carries the culture of my people, a language he understands the most,” Mabulu said in response to the controversy about Umshini Wami. “Through this painting I respectfully, as one of his children, ask my father why he is starving us.”

South Africa celebrated its 22nd year of democratic rule this year, but it has been difficult to feel celebratory. Zuma, president since 2009, has become increasingly mired in controversy, in part due to his questionable relationship with the Gupta family. In 2013, a scandal now referred to as Gupta Gate caused a ruckus in the country when the state military base was used to land a commercial plane carrying 200 guests from India for a Gupta family wedding. Zuma was found not guilty of any wrongdoing in a subsequent investigation, but many South Africans were left feeling uneasy about the possibility that the president was misusing his power to help his friends. The most recent Gupta scandal alleges that the family has had some influence over ministerial positions and in companies owned partly by the government. The public protector’s office announced in July there will be an investigation of the family’s ties with the president, which some have gone so far as to describe as “state capture.”

South Africans voted this week for the people that will run local municipalities for the next five years. Across the country, service delivery protests have been rampant, as people expressed their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of change. It was during this tense time that Mabulu chose to introduce a work designed to shock South African society, which is typically conservative.

The Gupta/Zuma piece is called Ingwe ayizidli ngamabala isakuluma ikaka okwesihlumi senyama, ayidliwa ikaka nokuba ungalamba ungagabha (Prostitutes). Loosely translated from Zulu: “A leopard cannot be proud if it eats shit as if it were a piece of meat. Shit cannot be eaten as the act causes one to vomit.”

Mabulu has explained that the painting represents state capture. Zuma is the pilot, South Africa is the plane and if the tomfoolery in the cockpit does not stop, then the plane will crash and South Africa will suffer irreparable damage. Mabulu wanted South Africans to think twice before they vote for the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, in the local elections. He has gone so far as to say that he could not just sit by and watch Zuma raping his beloved country. His message is for the ordinary South African, Mabulu claims, walking to the voting booths to submit their ballot paper.

In the end, the ANC did lose a lot of ground in this week’s elections, but not because Mabulu’s artwork added to the conversation.

Mabulu’s message is powerful and voices of dissent like his are necessary. South Africans are thinking long and hard about which political parties will best represent us and are least likely to lead us to crash and burn. The history of this country weighs so heavily on each of our shoulders that even though we are a people who have come far through democracy, we remain emotional when it’s time to vote.

The day after the painting was first unveiled to the public, my mother and I listened as people called in to a local public radio station to express their outrage. Even those dissatisfied with Zuma and the ANC were upset by the depiction.

Some called it disrespectful, saying it displayed an obsession with genitals and was voyeuristic. The conversation and discussion of the painting ended up circling around its pornographic elements. The nudity was distracting and the work seen as little more than a gimmick.

In a quest to be radical and to depict the “bare and naked truth,” Mabulu missed the most vital part of communication. He spoke to the heads of South Africans and not to our hearts. If Mabulu’s work came to mind as we stood in the voting booths, it conjured feelings of revulsion, not revolution. Instead of hitting our heads against a wall in outrage over a painting, it’s more important than ever for South Africans to have the kind of discussion that inspires us to action and draws us closer to the kind of freedom we were all promised in 1994.