Art review: Khaya Witbooi x State of the nation

‘What transpired in Parliament reflects the kind of state we’re in,” says artist Khaya Witbooi about the debacle that was this year’s state of the nation address. We’re chatting in front of his piece ‘Cellphone Jamming (live at parliament)’ at Worldart Gallery in Cape Town.

“That cellphone jamming is something you did not expect to happen. That was the true state of the nation,” he concludes.

Witbooi’s work employs images borrowed from pop culture, art history, advertising and other forms of mass media. At first glance, one is reminded of the work of English painter and collage artist Richard Hamilton.

Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup cans also put in an appearance.

This familiarity with the masters of pop art from Europe and the US is shown deliberately. “I appreciate Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein,” Witbooi says as we sit on a white plinth inside the gallery’s white cube, contemplating the work on show. “It has helped me look at the language of things in my immediate environment to communicate my particular condition.”

The images become a wallpaper accumulation of the artist’s environment, with its attendant politics and power dynamics. Sheep wool ( a metaphor for political party loyalists, I presume) and the Cecil John Rhodes statue, cellphones and guitars, Chappies wrappers and graffiti art are perfectly stenciled to give an effect of layer upon layer of narrative and counter-narrative, of method and madness on a single canvas.

“We don’t spend enough time resolving one issue before the next,” he says about his approach to composition. “So the layering of the piece is constructed from that point of view.”

When he speaks about the recent xenophobic attacks, wrinkles of worry knit together on his forehead as he looks at the president before us, smiling gleefully while plucking the strings of a cellphone, which has been transmorphed into a guitar. After all, our president has quite a taste for the theatrical, the musical, since the pre- Polokwane days of ‘Mshini Wami’..

“These are indicators that something is wrong with our country and ourselves, and needs to be addressed, immediately,” Witbooi says of what transpired in parliament and the mangled efforts to dismiss its gravitas.

We live in colourful times and pop art is a universal language; as such, when you look at Witbooi’s work, you are dealing with a deployment of the lingua franca of cultures, predominantly disseminated in stencil. “I look forward to making mistakes in my work,” Witbooi says, “so that I can perfect those mistakes and they don’t seem out of place, but rather a part of the piece. And I reproduce them again and again.”

Another poignant piece in his new body of work is a print titled Remember Marikana (edition 4/10).

“People who die from the repressive violence of state become martyrs, which is why I use the SAPS shield as a halo around Mambush’s head. It symbolises that what happened on that fateful day [Marikana Massacre] was de facto a transfer of power from the state to the people. Now, there is another centre of power, which is outside the confines of government. Mambush will never be forgotten – thanks to the state.”

We speak about another painting, titled Che Makeba, which is about our freedom struggle and the music that was its soundtrack. We speak about Lucky Star pilchards and Lion matches, and other household goods that framed our upbringing during apartheid.

“My work doesn’t attempt to answer all the national concerns. What I wish to articulate is my point of view, from where I am located within this madness – also, to entrench my dignity and integrity, as a black man. As such, I like my work to be energetic as a way of articulating my stand in this fight for survival.”

 Originally appeared in City Press – 7 June 2015*

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