Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson | Cape Town

left – rightMustafa Maluka, I’ve decided my fate , 2007, oil and acrylic on canvas, 183 x 133cm Mustafa Maluka, The rival , 2007, oil on canvas, 183 x 133cmMustafa Maluka, I felt so vacant , 2007, oil and acrylic on canvas, 183 x 133cmMustafa Maluka’s The Interview (a transcript) consists of 18 paintings of self-consciously hip embodiments of global youth culture. Maluka has mined this vein for some time, and the repetition of precisely the same style, subject matter and head-and-shoulders format prompts a sense of staleness and deja-vu.Traditionally portraiture aspires to more than likeness; it strives to provide insight into character, and persuade the viewer that he ‘knows’ the individuals portrayed. Maluka’s portraits rework pre-existent images from the internet as well as fashion and lifestyle magazines. This explains their numbing superficiality. The artist has never clapped eyes on his sitters: he paints images of images, and in the process, any sense of contact with a flesh and blood human being vanishes.The Interview proclaims the paramountcy of image and appearance. It is a celebration of fashion, a gazette of current styles of dress, make-up and hairdressing. Maluka’s clotheshorses each concoct a distinctive look for themselves, and that is the summit of their aspirations. Like ramp models they strike attitudes that suggest authority, ambition, introversion and yearning, but emote nothing beyond these stylised and notional emotions. The female portraits, in particular, rival the blank allure of Hello magazine covers featuring Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or David and Victoria Beckham. These are the role models of Maluka’s cast, and the principal architects of his aesthetic.Such degraded schlock is licit material for art, however Maluka takes it at face value, and handles it without a scintilla of irony. He blows his tawdry idols up onto the giant scale, and proceeds to iconise them by enshrining them in centralised, symmetrical and frontal compositions. The overinflated dimensions and heroic overtones merely serve to underline the triviality of those portrayed, and Maluka’s Hall of Fame resonates the same spuriousness as assails us when we gaze at images of Stalin, Mao and other symbols of bankrupt ideologies.The photographic inspiration and overlays of bleeding colour invoke Warhol, but The Interview lacks the mesmerising qualities of the master whose subjects — screen goddesses, art world idols, glitterati – are larger-than-life personifications of stardom and glory. Warhol does not need to deal with the character of such media-fabricated titans; it is implicit. A ready-made personality and pre-packaged mythology inhere to the image, which Warhol renders even more compelling by making his colours erupt their contours, thus implying disparity between the public perception and the private persona.Maluka’s wannabes never accede to the mythic stature of Warhol’s media icons. On the contrary, they exemplify that banal phenomenon: the ordinary person striving to appear extraordinary. The faces rendered in conventional skin tones are roughly over-painted with dark anti-naturalistic greys and browns, and then dribbled over with plops and trails of pigment or scribbled gestural brushwork. These dark hues blur notions of ethnicity and imply that we are all the same under the skin.The poster-like brashness of style suggests Maluka’s true concerns are the reductive constructions of personality relayed by advertising and the media. He reflects this impoverishment by glorifying his flibbertigibbets in a crude propagandist style. Pose is frozen, plasticity eliminated, the subjects reduced to inexpressive billboard monoliths. The facial planes are virtually devoid of relief. Features are described in a signwriter’s makeshift shorthand before lips and eyebrows are covered in strident greens, blues, pinks and reds. Hair is plonked onto the scalp like a pudding bowl, or rendered in a stylised pop art idiom.The absence, or – more charitably – the suppression of traditional artistic skills makes the portraits wooden and inert. Patterned backgrounds of screechy colours and writhing forms activate the space around the heads, but dismally fail to resuscitate Maluka’s lifeless waxwork dummies.

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