By Andrew Mulenga
He has 6 paintings hanging in Zambia’s most luxurious hotel, The Royal Livingstone, the preferred lodgings for international celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal. A hotel that The Post’s Edwin Mbulo reported boasts the most expensive alcohol in Zambia, a "Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac" which in 2009 cost US$1000 per shot and at the time only three tots had been sold in eight years.
|Artist Yiull Damaso with his work “Mein Kampf! - |
Photo courtesy of the artist
But still, Yiull Damaso is hardly a house hold name in Zambia, most of us have never even heard of him. However, the provocative, Zimbabwe-born artist continues to create controversial ripples in South Africa, his adopted home, where he is well known since his first painting Dreadlocked Mandela caused outrage.
In an interview, he talks about Cog in the Wheel, Spanner in the Works, his latest show held in Johannesburg that featured “Mein Kampf!” and “The Mobfather”, both portraits of South African politician, and Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters political movement, Julius Malema. One depicts him as a fiery Adolf Hitler – obviously it borrows from the Führer‘s book that went by the same title – and the other portrays him as the Mafia boss from the Mario Puzzo book. Damaso also talks about his involvement in charity work and sheds light on his Royal Livingstone commission.
“The opening of Cog in the Wheel, Spanner in the Works was excellent! 250 people squeezed into my studio to see the show, sales were also admirable with 14 works going on opening night. It met with my expectations,” he says.
He says he was not fearful in any instant of harassment by Malema’s followers and he does not consider that point until it actually presents itself, and surely it has happened to him before, years ago when he launched his Nelson Mandela series. This series was received with mixed feelings that also caused some controversy.
|The Night Watch (2010) by Yiull Damaso|
“I am not driven to controversy; my outlook allows me to see things differently to how others perceive them and that is what drives my work,” he says.
Apparently, for his latest work, his subject responded in a way that the artist least expected, probably defeating the whole purpose. Malema told the South African newspaper City Press that: “Artists have got the right to express their opinions about the world as they see it. They have the right to tell their story and they must be encouraged to”.
“I did not expect this reaction from Malema, I thought he would dismiss it (the artwork),” says the artist who believes that Malema does have the potential ability to agitate and sway the masses to his benefit as did Hitler.
The artist believes his pictures of Malema reference the politicians command as an orator and that they are also a caution to the masses not to develop a mob mentality. And without doubt Malema is a crowd-puller. Last month, during the launch of his political party that was symbolically held in Marikana, where 34 miners were killed last year after protesting low wages he addressed an excited crowd of more than 15 000 people – according to South African media. In Marikana, the 32-year-old reportedly killed one of eight oxen slaughtered prior to the event aimed at appease the spirits of the dead miners, he said to have closed his speech by singing a controversial song called “Shoot the Boer”.
|Dreadlocked Mandela (1998) by Yiull Damaso|
Nevertheless, Damaso’s Mandela series was not dismissed as easily as the Malema ones. At first it was his paintings of the dreadlocked Madiba that angered some members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and later it was The Night Watch, a 2010 painting after 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt’s painting. Damaso’s rendition depicts Mandela’s half naked corps being dissected on an autopsy table. Apparently, the late AIDS activist Nkosi Johnson is carrying out the autopsy while Archbishop Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma look on.
The reproduction on the painting on the front page of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa that same year incited an enflamed response from the ANC.
"The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso," stated party spokesman Jackson Mthembu according to the newspaper. "It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.
"In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person and this so-called work of art … is also racist. It goes further by violating Tat' uMandela's dignity by stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them."
ANC questioned why anyone would dream of a dead Madiba and why newspapers including the Mail and Guardian would put to prominence “this work of rubbish in their publication?”
According to the artist, the South African Government had tried to forcibly stop him from depicting the former President and even went so far as sending two inspectors from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to confiscate and destroy his paintings.
|Woman by Yiull Damaso|
“At first I was intimidated, as I am just one person with no backing. Eventually this act only infuriated me and resulted in me offering the works for free if you purchased a toothpick, safety pin or AIDS badge,” he explains “After my DTI meeting, the Mail & Guardian asked if I would like to go public with the incident (the inspectors had given me a back dated Government Gazette that showed I was breaking the ‘Marks and Merchandise act of 1941’ I declined after legal advice from Dr Owen Dean. That is the one and possibly only thing I regret regarding that entire incident, I should have gone public with the way they were trying to shut me down.”
Three years down the line, Damaso remains unrepentant that his depiction of dead Mandela – a man he confesses to love dearly – was merely a clarion call to the people of South Africa, reminding them that their nation’s greatest son was not immortal and they should therefore try to look beyond the inspirational life he has lived.
In appearance, he is every bit the anarchist as his wide upturned moustache and thin vertical beard lend him a striking resemblance with Guy Fawkes, a character whose stylised portrayal was borrowed for “V” a daring and charming freedom fighter, by illustrator David Lloyd that has come to represent anti-establishment protests globally, after it was used in the graphic novel V for Vendetta and later adapted into a hit movie. Actually he looks like the hero “V” without the over-sized smile.
“My facial hair was just for personal taste, however as time has passed I have aligned myself to some degree with the Anonymous Movement (an international online network of activists and hacktivists that borrow the Vendetta mask). I think my Twitter and Facebook page posts reveal this,” says Damaso when asked whether he is inspired by the character.
And like the protagonist from V for Vendetta, he too is something of a folk hero. Since the late 1990s about the time he started producing Mandela inspired paintings, he also started donating to the Breast Cancer Awareness Organization. In 2006 he undertook to draw cartoons at the Children’s Burn Unit at the Johannesburg General Hospital, as well as donating to the Childhood Cancer Foundation. In 2011 he auctioned, a major work and the proceeds went to the Light from Africa Foundation. From the auction of his works he has managed to donate R115 000 (just over K62, 000) directly to various orphanages in South Africa.
“Various incidents and factors guide my choice on these factors. For example, I became aware of breast cancer due to my sister’s best friend’s mom passing from it,” he explains on how he was driven towards charity “After some thought and research regarding breast cancer statistics, and realising that in my immediate family of 9 people, six are woman. I stand to lose some of them unless we do something about it. The case of children infuriates me. As adults we continue to procreate without the ability to sustain and regard what we already have. The selfishness is astounding!”
He also says his upbringing firstly in Zimbabwe as an outsider and secondly in South Africa as an immigrant, has forged his perceptions, his reactions and his art. His family left Zimbabwe when he was 12 years old, but he describes his life during the time as incredible, and he I loved it. However, he saw himself as an outsider because he was constantly picked on and physically tormented for a number of years owing to the fact that being of Portuguese and Italian descent did not qualify him as white enough.
“I had similar verbal torment in South Africa briefly but I was old enough and strong enough to handle it and sort it out, however my SA status is questionable. I have been here for 31 years and I still do not have the right to vote,” he complains “My documents/papers are sitting at head office in Pretoria and have been there since January. I had an SA passport, it expired and Home affairs will not renew it. Your guess is as good as mine as to why. My sister’s papers state that she was born in SA which is untrue; she was born in Zim like me. I would have benefitted from that clever mistake…”
Speaking of Zimbabwe, the unbending Robert Mugabe comes to mind. His stance on land issues, his dysfunctional relationship with the west and his recent castigation by Amnesty International in a document published on its website this week entitled Zimbabwe: Human rights agenda for the government, 2013 – 2018 is sufficient fodder for socio-political commentary but Damaso says he has only once, seriously considered depicting Robert Mugabe in his work. After some discussions regarding the work to some friends, their total lack of understanding and reasoning of the image made him put it on hold for the time being.
Nevertheless, crossing the border to Zambia, the artist explains how he landed a commission for which many Zambian artists would gladly donate a limb.
“I was fortunate in meeting with a company here in SA that executes the Sun International interior design work. I have some of their indirect commissions at The One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai as well,” explains the artist probably unintentionally revealing that foreign run hotels are at will to commission art from anywhere in the world at the unfortunate expense of our commission-starved local artists. A pitiful fact that one hopes the Zambian arts policy makers will be able to tackle in their forthcoming National Arts and Culture Commission.
“There are 6 paintings at the Royal Zambezi Sun, 3 are in the presidential suite, the rest are scattered at various points around the hotel, bar, conference centre etc. I painted all of them here in SA but was lucky enough to land a roll in a TV commercial being shot at the hotel; this was how I got to see some of them there,” he reveals.
He knows very little about Zambian art or politics so he is unable to comment on how politically astute our artists are compared to him but he is able to make a general observation as well as give a word of advice to all governments on the continent and beyond.
“I don’t know very much about Zambia at all, my apologies. However it is not that the (African) artists are necessarily naïve, but the ruling parties. It seems that many Governments ruling African countries are not open to self-criticism. This is evident in South Africa where intervention occurs frequently if the work is considered to be in any way offensive to the ruling party,” he observes, saying Governments the world over should take a leaf from the way the Canadian Government handled the depiction of their prime minister nude, on a chaise’ lounge with a small dog at his feet.
“The prime minister’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall reacted in a Twitter message: ‘We’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person,” says Damaso.
Artistically he is a hard act to follow, when he is not dabbling in politics, he is a man of many experimental techniques and themes. His work also includes surrealism, still life, seascapes, landscapes, nudes, Japanese anime and customized Converse and Dickies footwear.His prominent clients include Anglo American, Smirnoff, Swatch, Hush Puppies, Vespa, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Douw Stein (of The Saxon Hotel) and Pirelli (Race Division).
Damaso was born in 1968, moved to South Africa 1982, attained a National Diploma in Architecture from Wits University in 1991. He started painting in 1995 when he found he could begin to better express myself. He started experimenting with murals and was later described as South Africa’s top muralist by art critic Hazel Friedman in the Cape Argus in 2000, the same year he held his first two solo exhibitions in Cape Town and San Francisco. Since then he has exhibited consistently in South Africa and abroad.