Old Masters and New Meanings: An introduction to the work of Richard Mudariki
By Lloyd Pollak
Richard Mudariki is an award-winning Zimbabwean artist who has exhibited widely in Harare, Cape Town and Johannesburg. He has been living in South Africa for the past year, and My Reality, his first solo exhibition, presents a body of work that reflects the ongoing crisis that obtains in the country of his birth. However, despite the title, his paintings make no pretence to portray real events. They candidly admit that they are fabrications in which old master compositions, poses and plastic sequences of interlinked figures, are severed from their original historical context, and projected into a fresh frame of reference where their meaning is transformed, so that they comment on the iniquities of the Mugabe dictatorship, and draw attention to other injustices of far wider import.
Mudariki’s work can be profitably compared to that of Johannes Phokela, an older South African artist who has made his mark both nationally and internationally. Phokela may well have come to Mudariki’s attention and given focus to his oeuvre, as both artists rely on appropriation. The South African pillages the canon of the great Dutch and Flemish old masters of yore, such as Rubens, Brueghel and Jordaens. However, instead of using Western painting to cast light on contemporary Africa and its problems as Mudariki does, Phokela changes the race of the original 17th century Netherlandish figures from white to black in order to challenge the European myth of white supremacy, and condemn the racism and colonialism to which it gave rise.
Mudariki’s art is issue-driven: it addresses the violation of animal and human rights, corporate greed, gender stereotyping, censorship and rape inter alia. Although such subject matter smacks of shrill, soap-box preachiness, the mise-en-scene proves so visually arresting that any specific political message becomes subsumed in a spectacular Breughelesque pageant of infamy and transgression. This transcends any chronological and geographic particularity, and becomes a timeless and universal statement conveyed with such gripping imaginative assurance that the resultant image entirely transcends the artist’s activist goals.
Mudariki takes canonical masterpieces of the order of Goya’s ‘Third of May’, Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ and Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ – works of such devastating impact that they have etched themselves indelibly in the memory of many successive generations – and he appropriates them without ever reproducing them. Although he retains the compositional formulae and poses, the physiognomies, anatomies, costume and other details are always transformed so as to shatter the illusion of reality, disorientate the viewer and make him question what he is looking at.
Mudariki’s most startling transformation of these revered museum pieces is his transplantation of his borrowings into jarring settings completely alien to the backgrounds of the original paintings. Thus Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ no longer sails the high seas, but is decisively planted on terra firma with the smashed raft being equipped with humble box-cart wheels. This creates a deflationary effect of parody and burlesque, and there is indeed an element of send-up in many of Mudariki’s paintings. Gericault’s cast materializes on a corridor-like stage where they are penned in by claustrophobic, inward-pressing walls that steep the scene in menace. These stark, bare and emptied-out spaces, devoid of windows, doors or any kind of openings, appear to form part of a dark labyrinthine warren of sinister Kafkaesque design. Mysterious maze-like structures and slabby, cubic boxes occur throughout this body of work, injecting a surreal complication into imagery which was originally constructed in a purely naturalist manner, reproducing the viewer’s own familiar world.
Ominous overtones go hand in hand with humor: the sight of Helen Zille leading her forces into battle is extremely amusing. So is the idea of placing Manet’s two bachelors picnicking with a naked woman within a stadium or cyclorama where there is no vestige of privacy. Characters and juxtapositions, like the nude journalists earnestly poking microphones before the mouths of goats, in ‘Goat Interview’, and the rhinoceri in wheelchairs in ‘The Scream for the Rhino’ arouse laughter, but Mudariki’s comic sense often verges on the kind of black or gallows humor that we associate with the theatre of the absurd.
Extremely obtrusive checkerboard patterns invade the walls and floors of Mudariki’s walled spaces turning them into three dimensional chess boards. Chess is an ancient game where the two players enact medieval battles using stylized wooden kings, queens, knights and bishops, armies of pawns, and strongholds in the form of parapetted castles. Checkerboards are also associated with other games of skill and chance, such as checkers and draughts, which also involve combat, the capture of pieces and the conquest of territory. These allusions suggest that the paintings represent contests, and they identify life as conflict and strife. Mudariki’s references to dice and card games intimate that the inhabitants of his world are not in control of their destinies, and that they are the playthings of sinister and malign forces.
Both the checkerboard upon which the action of virtually all the paintings is set, and the walls cordoning off space, and denying one any glimpse of what lies beyond, imply captivity and confinement, and operate as metaphors for a people denied freedom of choice, and room in which to manoeuvre. All these walls, barriers and boundaries imply no exit, and distill a hallucinatory quality indicative of dementia and delusion. Mudariki’s set-ups function as visual parallels to Zimbabwe, and all tyrannies, where a reign of terror prevails and life is a dicey and uncertain matter of continual jeopardy and risk. Under such pressure, one’s mental state deteriorates into one of fear, apprehension, and eventually, paranoia.
Gericault’s corpses are given a rag-doll limpness and preposterous green hue. The ranks of the original shipwrecked crew are swelled by cockerel and dog-headed sailors and masked figures both clad, and unclad. The dramatis personae freeze in poses identical to those of Gericault, provoking a double take in the viewer. We immediately recognize the familiar composition, but experience a jolt of shock as the characters and setting are so alarmingly different to those in the original painting.
The same applies to Mudariki’s other works in which pig and baboon-headed therianthropes consort with human beings, and the naked rub shoulders with figures in business suits, army uniforms, tights, medieval robes, Victorian bourgeois attire, 17th century ruffed Dutch burgher apparel, top hats and a jester’s motley and cap with three ass’s ears with bell finials.
Mudariki’s isometric boxes function exactly like a stage with the fourth wall removed, and the artist’s décor exudes an overt theatricality, and conjures up a chimerical world that is both grotesque and macabre. The bizarre architecture, freakish hybrid beings and flamboyant costumes are scenographic fantasies. They remind us of the medieval visions of Brueghel and Bosch both of whom rejected the real world in order to construct an infernal amusement park, a Disneyland of the afterlife in the words of W.S. Gibson.
The masks and costumes of different eras and different societies smack of disguise, travesty and duplicity, and proclaim that appearances are deceptive, and nothing is what it seems. Mudariki’s ‘Pieta’ reeks of corruption and graft: the Virgin, wearing a business tie, shirt and suit, weeps over a slain Muammar Gaddafi as an unholy coalition of war-mongering generals and venal capitalists look on.
In ‘The Raft of False Hope’, it is clear that the cast is aware of our presence, and that what they are doing is to act out the equivalent of a morality play or cautionary tale for our benefit. In every painting, the actors freeze and suspend the action in order to drive home the socio-political point, and usually one of the actors gazes directly at us. In ‘The Raft of False Hope’ the grey-faced man sandwiched between the two cockerels stares intently at us, his audience, in order to gauge how we are reacting, and whether we have learned any lesson from this parable which, as Mudariki writes, makes a political and social statement warning us of how the survival of the state is imperiled by desertion in times of need. The artist employs a euphemism, but obviously what he means is the mass emigration that has become such a feature of Zimbabwean life.
The assessory gaze of characters who solicit our opinion, and involve us in the action, gains even greater prominence in the third panel of ‘The Battles of Life’ where the two hand-wrestlers freeze as they turn round to scrutinize us. In the second panel of the triptych, five suited men become stand-ins for the viewer as they watch the action, while a humanized pig directs his gaze at us. Similar groups who, like the spectator, witness the action, occur in ‘The Gentleman’s Game’, ‘Goat Interview’, ‘The Dog Anatomy Lesson’ and ‘At the Theatre’, while characters who use the gaze to address a direct appeal to the viewer are seen in ‘The Passover’, ‘Pieta’ and ‘Church Women’.
Mugabe’s state, and all repressive dictatorships, are portrayed as realms of random uncertainty where there are no laws upon which the citizen can rely, and no fellow beings that he can afford to trust. The principles governing the universe also no longer apply. The sail of the raft billows outwards as if in response to a gale yet this is a completely static composition where everybody remains motionless without a hair out of place. Unanswerable questions abound: Are we indoors or outdoors? Is it night or day? Has the clock been stopped? Our notions of time and place become confused, and we learn to distrust the evidence of our senses.
The artist ensures we never mistake his fictive universe with reality, and witty anachronisms are deployed to this end: Helen Zille becomes a jousting Quattrocento knight; Mugabe presides over the last supper; the Virgin Mary cradles a surrogate Christ wearing dark glasses; and beribboned and highly decorated militarists, straight out of the German Expressionist repertory, observe the Pieta.
The apparatus of naturalism is turned upside down. Light possesses either the floodlit brilliance of ‘The Passover’ and ‘The Battles of Life’, or the tenebrous dim of ‘Goat Interview’ and ‘The Raft of False Hope’ where the mast and sail are plunged in darkness while the adjacent figures are brightly lit. Color is keyed-up and given an unnatural, blaring stridency that reaches a crescendo in raucous greens, blues, reds, oranges, and purples.
Shadow is often excised as in ‘The Passover’, but when it is present, as in ‘The Raft of False Hope’, some objects do cast shadows like the horses, whilst others, such as the people on the raft, do not. When shadow is applied consistently, it falls in different directions as both ‘Laundry Day’ and ‘The Battle of Cape Town’ illustrate.
Space is warped and distorted. The pattern of alternating orange and red squares in ‘Political Prostitution’ is wrenched out of true, revealing that the floor is not flat, but curved, and the same phenomenon occurs in ‘Laundry Day’. In ‘The Dog Anatomy Lesson’ the ground lists downwards to the right. Tinkering with perspective occasions further disruptions. The orthogonals recede at a hectically accelerated pace, engineering spatial jumps whereby the viewer is hurtled from foreground to background in one abrupt, rushing movement. This technique is used in almost all the paintings, though the most dramatic example is ‘Capital Punishment’.
In ‘Goat Interview’ the parallel orthogonals of the checkerboard floors, approach each other far faster than they would in a scientifically accurate perspectival scheme, and the vanishing point occurs in an unlikely position. In ‘The Passover’ only the Queen and President Mugabe are seated, and although the other figures stand in tiers behind them, they remain as tall or taller, and fail to diminish in scale as they recede into depth. In this picture, the figures are also jammed into a space far too small to accommodate them. They stand three deep, one behind the other, in the exiguous area on the far side of the table.
The point of view too is manipulated. In ‘The Gentleman’s Game’, for example, we look down at the floor from a steep raking angle, but see the billiard players and observers from head on, while the ceiling is viewed from below. The triptych, ‘The Battles of Life’, portrays a continuous space, or, according to convention it should, yet the left wall in the first and second panels is black as if covered in shadow, while the right wall of the third panel is dark. This defies the scientific law that shadows lit by a single light source must always fall in the same direction. To complicate things even further, we cannot decide whether the diagonals on the rear walls in panel one and panel two indicate contrasts of light and shade, or architectural projections and recessions.
The incoherence of scale is flagrant. In ‘The Battle of Cape Town’, the frogs and cock involved in the skirmish, loom as large as the equestrian warriors, and in ‘Capital Punishment’ the head of the rapist with outstretched arms appears opposite to those of his executioners, and behind that of one of his female victims, yet his head remains far larger than theirs. All these logical inconsistencies draw our attention to the confected quality of Mudariki’s imagery and emphasize their sheer factitiousness.
Mudariki’s debts to other artists are almost exclusively limited to quotation. The suited militarists, businessmen and politicians often vaguely remind one of those of the German Expressionists. The forced perspectives and love of dusky blue and greens owe something to Giorgio de Chirico, and the animal-headed beings, especially the rhinoceri in wheelchairs and on crutches, recall the half-animal, half-human creatures of Alberto Savinio, and of course, Brueghel and Bosch. Many paintings create a surreal atmosphere, yet do not suggest the influence of any one particular painter. These are indeed lean pickings.
No artist emerges from a void, and one is forced to ask oneself, what tradition produced Mudariki? The answer is that the artist takes the paintings of the old masters and transforms them into allegories. This makes him something of an odd man out, as this mode of communication became increasingly spurned over the last century because it reeks of the Symbolist movement, and the outmoded art of the turn of the 19th century.
Allegory is a device used in art to signify a meaning that is not literal. It presents abstract ideas, meanings or messages in visual form by employing symbolic figures, actions or representations. Everyday items like candles and lilies can symbolize concepts such as mortality, faith and virginity, and suggest that a parallel and far more profound symbolic meaning underlies the image. Simple examples are the grim reaper, a symbolic representation of death; a lady standing on a wheel to personify chance, and a blind woman holding up a pair of scales to represent justice.
Both Gericault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ and Mudariki’s ‘The Raft of False Hope’ are based on allegorical premises. Gericault used the shipwreck to symbolize the poor statecraft that prevailed in the French government of the day. The raft, a variation of the familiar trope of the Ship of State, thus represents a regime foundering and coming adrift. In Mudariki’s painting, the raft is equated with Zimbabwe and the dead and dying aboard it become metaphors for a society on the brink of death and disaster.
Granted ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ possesses elements of allegory, but Mudariki twists masterpieces entirely devoid of any allegorical implications, like Matisse’s ‘The Dance’, Uccello’s ‘The Battle of San Romano’, Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ into allegories where every visual element becomes the embodiment of an abstract idea. ‘The Passover’, a rephrasing of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, is based on an implicit comparison between the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian captivity, and the plight of Zimbabwe and its President. Mudariki insists that no divine intervention like the parting of the Red Sea, will save the country and its people from disintegration and collapse. The finality of Christ’s Last Supper becomes emblematic of the disaster that will inevitably overtake the country. The objects strewn over the dinner table are replaced, as Mudariki writes, by a feast of symbols… A central hour glass suggests that the President’s time is running out. The vulture, usually a symbol of renewal, here becomes the harbinger of death, feeding on others’ misfortune. Two locusts, destroyers of crops during the Egyptian plagues, are branded with the flags of two international powers. The cards lain on the table reveal that Mugabe has a weak hand, implying that he does not command sufficient power to prevent his overthrow. The severed head of the common man is served on a platter, a metaphor for those preyed on to keep the ruling party in power. The wine glasses are filled with the blood of the President’s victims.
Although allegory is distinctly passé, Mudariki rejuvenates and modernizes it. The means it employs to disseminate its message present close affinities with Soviet Agitprop, and its offspring, the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Mudariki is obviously a highly educated man, but I am not necessarily suggesting that he was directly influenced by either Agitprop or Brecht. Artists who are geographically far apart and completely unaware of each other’s existence, often come up with very similar innovations entirely independently of each other, because their work reflects the same zeitgeist, and by chance, they discovered similar means of giving it expression.
The term Agit-prop is applied to drama, especially street theatre, movies, and other art forms including painting and the posters designed by leading 20th century Russian artists. These relay an explicitly political message as does Mudariki who adopts an adversarial, even incendiary stance vis-à-vis the Mugabe regime. His oeuvre could be dismissed as mere propaganda, however, as stated before, it is redeemed from that abject condition by the artist’s wit, conceptual ingenuity and imaginative power.
Agitprop’s goal was to promote Communist ideology and exhort the masses to commit themselves wholeheartedly to its ethical ideal of boosting the wealth and power of the state, and contributing to the welfare of its people.
A much later offshoot of these historical developments is the agitprop idiom that the American artist, Barbara Kruger devised from the 1980s onwards. Kruger juxtaposes large, poster and billboard-sized black and white photographic images with pithy, feminist comments that criticize the massive power of the state and pick holes in capitalist ideology and its concepts of gender, race, religion and sexuality.
The proselytizing and conversionary ethic of agitprop gave rise to agitprop theatre, a highly-politicized leftwing form of drama that originated in the 1920s, spread throughout Europe and America, attaining its supreme expression in the oeuvre of Bertolt Brecht, a Marxist playwright who later established the Berliner Ensemble in post-war East Germany. Brecht adapted the theories of earlier Russian Communist directors to create what he called epic theatre, a form of dramatic expression that relies on exactly the same methodological foundation as Mudariki’s art.
Epic theatre ensures that the audience remains conscious at all times that what they are watching is not a slice of life, but a production. It employs a whole battery of devices to shatter the illusion of reality, interrupt the action, and break the fourth wall.
Realistic sets, costumes and props are replaced by highly simplified and stylized substitutes that no one could possibly mistake for the real thing. Typical Brechtian practices are continual interruptions of the action. The actors break into song and dance routines, address the audience directly, or comment upon the action like the chorus in ancient Greek drama. Slogans, visual captions and film projected onto the stage, and announcements either tape-recorded, or delivered by a master of ceremonies, distance the audience even further from the action.
All these devices correspond to what Brecht called the alienation effect. The alienation effect introduces a barrier between the play and the audience, preventing identification with the cast and involvement in the drama. As the term suggests, the alienation effect alienates us from what we see on the stage. This, Brecht hoped would foster a rational and reflective state of mind in which the audience would critically evaluate the drama, recognize the abuses and injustices it underlines, and strive to remove them and thus build a more just and equitable world.
Alienation devices form a parallel to Mudariki’s use of old master imagery to immediately remind the viewer that what he is looking at is art, and the fact that it is recycled art, makes the distinction even more glaring. His introduction of logical inconsistencies into his handling of light, space, perspective and scale sabotage illusionist goals, and underscore the identity of his paintings as representations of reality, rather than reality itself. There is no narrative; no temptation for the viewer to loose himself in the unfolding action, and involve himself with the characters and their predicament, for that action is always arrested, and left hanging in the air. There is no dénouement for the artist portrays the course of the action, but not its conclusion, so that the viewer will never know what fate awaited the shipwrecked crew of ‘The Raft of False Hope’, who won the round of billiards in ‘The Gentleman’s Game’, or who proved triumphant in ‘The Battle of Cape Town’.
The static character of the scenario and the absence of any resolution or catharsis, eliminates action and suspense. It enables the viewer to remain completely detached from what he witnesses, and invites an analytic rather than an emotional response, encouraging us to consider the political and social implications of the image just as we do in a Brechtian production. Such is the rationale of Mudariki’s painterly re-enactments of the iconic masterpieces of the European tradition.