Of artful moves …

Nkule Mabaso

Art has an important role to play in pointing out and commenting on the socio-political sphere, says Michaelis Gallery curator, Nkule Mabaso.

It is this ability which Ms Mabaso is harnessing in the gallery’s most recent exhibition, The Circus and the Zoo, which was put together in reaction to the recent increase in racial slurs across social media platforms in which black people are likened, derisively, to monkeys.

The media release for the show reads: “Six months into a year that has been marked by black outrage over ‘simianising’ racist slurs, the dehumanising ideologies of the entrenched racism in South Africa are publicly surfacing from their thin veneer. Animalisation is a widespread element of racist dehumanisation, manifesting itself on a lethal combination of sexism and racism; it remains a malicious and effective instrument of desocialisation and denying human characteristics.”

Says Ms Mabaso: “The current discussions going on in the country about race and the continued comparison between black people and monkeys goes back to a long history of racial discrimination and the dehumanising of positioning black bodies as inferior and less intelligent and more animal and primal.”

Ms Mabaso is, however, quick to point out: “The exhibition is not really aimed at countering those narratives, but rather to show how some artists have- through the use of allegory and metaphor – used animals and other symbolism to look at issues. Because we imbue human characteristics onto animals; we see them as an extension of humans in some instances.”

The show includes works by artists such as Nandipha Mntambo, Dumile Feni, Maurice Mbikayi, Dolla Sapeta, Themba Shibase and Ayanda Mabula.

“Most of the works came down to having strong political themes. They always seem to criticise politicians – or make allegorical works about politicians represented as, say, hyenas. So we tried to look at not just that one aspect, but others too, such as with Dumile Feni, whose work, I am Not a Donkey, could really be about anyone who is overworked in the labour system. So with these works we were trying to speak to a broader concern and not have it over-politicised.”

Ms Mabaso is originally from KwaZulu-Natal and now lives in Kenilworth. She completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Michaelis in 2011, after which she went on to complete a Master’s degree in Curating, with supporting funds from the National Arts Council of South Africa, in 2014 and thereafter applied for her current position, which she has held since 2015.

So what kind of challenges does she face? Without missing a beat, Ms Mabaso laughs, saying: “Making sure that the exhibitions actually happen. It’s usually touch and go until the opening of the exhibition, where you basically have the show that you get. The process involves a lot of people and is very contingent on relationships – both institutional and personal – that can make the process easier … or not.”

The “touch and go” nature of her work is, however, made worthwhile through, she says, “Being able to physically realise and manifest something that, until that moment, was just a thought in my mind. Also, seeing the growth and development of the careers and works of the people I am working with – and those I am still hoping to work with.”

Keen to expand the number of people she works with, Ms Mabaso adds: “The gallery accepts proposals on a rolling basis throughout the year, so we are always encouraging interested artists and parties to apply.”

As to what she hopes viewers of The Circus and the Zoo will walk away with, Ms Mabaso says: “Well, I hope people will walk away more sensitive to all our shared suffering, in a sense. I mean, it’s easy to say ‘the bully is not the victim’, but on the other hand, what causes the bully to be the bully. I think people are acting out of fear; out of a desire to protect themselves and so end up injuring other people. But, you know, we don’t necessarily have to react in forceful and fearful ways.”

* The Circus and the Zoo will run at the Michaelis Gallery, Hiddingh Campus, 30 to 37 Orange Street, Gardens, until Thursday July 19. For more information, call 021 650 7170.