By Timothy Johns
Though buried beneath controversies over vuvuzelas, refereeing, and the implosion of various national teams during the FIFA World Cup, Yiull Damaso’s autopsy painting of Nelson Mandela, titled “The Night Watch!”, nevertheless generated a considerable amount of heat this summer, particularly in the host nation, South Africa. The reproduction of Damaso’s Rembrandt-inspired painting on the front page of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian—a reproduction portraying Mandela, dead and nearly naked, undergoing an autopsy witnessed by a number of recognizable national politicians and public figures–“provoked a furious response from the ruling African National Congress (ANC).” Jackson Mthembu, a party spokesman, commented: “The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso. It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.” “In African society,” Mthembu continued, “it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi [witchcraft] to kill a living person and this so-called work of art…is also racist.”
Outside the ANC, however, opinions about the painting—and the role of art in a postcolonial society like South Africa’s–were far more divided. Respondents invited to post comments about Damaso’s work on the Mail & Guardian website noted, for example, that the ANC’s reaction to the painting, and its support for a “media tribunal” that might censor material thought to be offensive, would “be like going back to the Apartheid era,” when art was routinely banned for political reasons. Other respondents saw the ANC’s response as an attempt to deflect criticism away from its own failures. “Oh pullleeez!” posted Neal McKenna. “The ANC has bigger fish to fry—like trying to govern this country properly—a task for which they could use a few pointers.” Still others, like Robert K, suggested that the ANC and others who expressed hostility to the painting failed to understand the nature of artistic expression: “The comments and reasons given for condemning the painting show that people do not understand art. Art is not just about representing something faithfully (for that you have photographs), it’s about expressing an idea, a thought, a feeling, perhaps an ideology, to communicate something, to evoke a reaction in the viewer—and not just an emotional reaction, but an intellectual one as well.” Although Robert K rightly suggests that “there are several levels on which [the painting] can be interpreted,” his final assessment of “The Night Watch!” seems rather piecemeal: “Who knows…it’s thought-provoking stuff.”
As my interest in the painting deepened, and as I began to develop my own reading of its Dutch imagery and contemporary political significance, I did what any curious intellectual would do: I became the artist’s Facebook friend. Graciously responding to my inquiries via Facebook, Damaso wrote that the reason for choosing Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632) as the model for the painting “came from the title of another painting by [Rembrandt], ‘The Night Watch.’ I liked the idea of questioning who is watching us while we sleep, and not necessarily at night, but while we go about our daily routines…[S]omeone is making decisions that affect us.” Damaso also noted that the process of paring down the figures to a select group, represented around Mandela’s corpse, “was a 3-4 month affair…[E]very time I brought the subject of the painting up with my friends and family a lengthy discussion ensued. I eventually had to make my decision of who should be in the painting and why. I really wanted to depict Helen Su[z]man [1917-2009; a courageous parliamentary opponent of white minority rule during the apartheid years]. I was lucky enough to have met her before she passed away…[M]y decision of putting Nkosi Johnson [1989-2001; an iconic figure in the struggle to humanize victims of HIV/AIDS] in the painting changed the dynamics of [it] as he is the only one who is no longer with us.” As for the charge of witchcraft: “I had no idea of the witchcraft angle that the ANC brought to the discussion…I explained that my depiction of Nelson Mandela dead had nothing to do with wishing him dead.” He concluded: “I keep finding that the divide culturally between black and white is very great.” However, he added, “my experience in public with this painting showed that more people after an explanation got it!”
Although I remain profoundly grateful to Damaso for patiently answering my questions, I still feel there is more to the painting than he let on. Indeed, artists often become benignly ignorant of the associations their work triggers in other viewers. In what follows, I engage some of the associations Damaso’s painting has triggered in my own mind. Paradoxically, as I will try to suggest, a painting that peers ahead toward the state of South Africa sans Mandela (what we might call “Post-Mandela Art”) must necessarily peer back at the colonial past—and, even more recently, at the failed presidency of Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor—to posit a vision of South Africa’s future.
Damaso’s nod to the great Dutch master seems no accident. After all, in 1652, twenty years after Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), led by Jan van Riebeeck, established a permanent settlement in the South African Cape—thus marking the advent of colonial South Africa and its concomitant settler ideology. Damaso’s integration of contemporary political personalities into this historical milieu cleverly meshes South Africa’s colonial past with its postcolonial present. Moreover, on a symbolic level, the opening up of a body during autopsy can suggest something about a larger pattern of colonial discovery and exploration—a pattern anticipating the opening up of the African continent. In fact, beginning with representations of “Hottentot Eves,” portraits of Khoi women accompanying legends on early South African maps, up until and beyond H. Rider Haggard’s portrayal, in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), of the southern African landscape as a naked, supine woman inviting European penetration, the body has always served as a symbolic vehicle of exploration, conquest, and discovery in colonial art and literature. Yet, in Damaso’s vision, exactly what kind of land is being discovered in the opening up of Mandela’s corpse? If, as Simon Schama notes, Rembrandt literally enacts a Greek sense of autopsia in his masterpiece—that is, “an act of direct witness of seeing for oneself”—what are the assembled witnesses (including Jacob Zuma, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Trevor Manuel, Cyril Ramaphosa, Helen Zille, F. W. de Klerk, and Thabo Mbeki) actually “seeing,” or failing to see, in Mandela’s inevitable passing?
Interestingly, the body submitted for autopsy in Rembrandt’s painting happened to be the cadaver of a criminal—a man named Adriaen Adriaenszoon, alias “Aris Kindt” (“the Kid”), who “had a long history of petty theft and criminal assault.” Mandela, as we know, was also branded a criminal by the apartheid state. He spent twenty-seven years in lock-up, though, at least on Robben Island, his kind–political prisoners–were separated from common criminals like Adriaenszoon. Nevertheless, in Damaso’s painting, as in Rembrant’s, by revealing the cadaver’s face, the artist “manages to rehumanize, rather than dehumanize, [the] body, forcing the beholder into an uncomfortable kinship with the dead as well as with the living.” Yet by making Nkosi Johnson, an HIV/AIDS martyr, the performer of the autopsy, Damaso’s painting elevates this discomfort between living and dead one step further. Uneasiness is not merely felt by spectators looking at the painting, but, potentially, by the group arranged around the corpse, around the curious spectacle of a dead man performing an autopsy on a man who has yet to die. Here, in my view, lies the meaning of the painting—in the faces of the group itself. Of those looking into the future of the “body” politic after Mandela, only Thabo Mbeki looks away. As Alois Riegl argues, Dutch group portraits rely on an “inner, closed unity” between the figures—a spatial arrangement Rembrandt was careful to reinforce. But in Damaso’s composition, Mbeki’s posture deconstructs this unity. The former president comes across as a betrayer of the body politic, resistant to the spectacle of the HIV/AIDS victim at work, refusing to “see” for himself. Though Damaso did not comment on Mbeki’s pose in our correspondence, the message seems clear enough. Considering all of Mbeki’s foibles—his disastrous policy of engagement with Robert Mugabe during Zimbabwe’s collapse; his promotion of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which created a parasitic black bourgeoisie; his support for global corporations and neoliberal economics at the expense of working families—the most devastating aspect of his legacy surely involves the 400,000 or so who died of HIV/AIDS under his watch, at a time when Mbeki insisted that “traditional African remedies” could be substituted for “European” antivirals. In a sense, then, Damaso’s painting is not really about Mandela at all: it’s about Mandela’s political afterlife, and how Mbeki and the ANC failed to maintain Mandela’s high moral ground.
This is just the beginning. Damaso’s provocative painting could be interpreted in numerous other ways. For instance, a conflict between “witchcraft” and the science of the European “Enlightenment,” on full display in Rembrandt’s original, does require further teasing out. But to conclude for now: what seems striking is how little attention has been paid to the treatment of Mbeki in the painting. At a time when South Africa should have been looking ahead, furthering the standing of Mandela’s momentous legacy, Mbeki drove the country in reverse, toward the dark chiaroscuro hues of a Dutch night.
David Smith, “Anger over Nelson Mandela autopsy painting.” Guardian on the Web, July 9, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/09/nelson-mandela-painting-south-africa (accessed August 18, 2010). See the article for a reproduction of the painting.
Craig Watt, comment attached to South African Press Association (SAPA), “ANC outraged over Mandela painting,” Mail & Guardian on the Web, July 9, 2010, http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-07-09-anc-outraged-over-mandela-painting (accessed August 18, 2010).