Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson | Cape Town

When Julie McGee and Vuyile Voyiya first screened their The luggage is still labelled some years ago there was justifiable outrage about the film’s many silences. Yet the core of the film stands firm: years after democracy the South African art world is still dominated by white artists, critics, curators and gallerists. I raise this in a review of Mustafa Maluka’s first solo show in seven years, entitled Accented Lives, not to score a trite point about much-needed black visibility in our insular art world (that too) but more importantly because Maluka brings an uncompromising black consciousness into the ostensibly depoliticised white cube of the gallery space and therefore into the lives of those who frequent these hallowed worlds.This is no throwback to resistance or struggle art. Rather, Maluka’s work is inspired by the global inner-urban culture of contemporary hip-hop. Reminiscent of a post-pop aesthetic, he has painted in oil on canvas a series of large portraits of black faces that are interspersed with a couple of canvases on which a clenched fist is collaged against various densely layered, graffiti-like backgrounds. All the paintings are composed in a similar way: the faces are painted mostly in frontal view and are more or less the same size.The huge canvases are exactly the same size and hung at equal rhythmic intervals along the walls. And yet, despite the repetition of motif and the bad rap that painting ordinarily gets, the exhibition as a whole escapes the danger of becoming formulaic or mechanical because, quite simply, it mesmerises. While compositions are similar, attention to surface brings variety into the show, the colour variously washed into the surface or scratched away in an obsessive layering of thin paint.While invoking the notion of the portrait gallery, Maluka creates icons rather than exact likenesses. Based on images found in the media, he has looked for faces that exude a certain strength, an aura if you will, and has idealised these even further. Viewed together these idols offer a lineage, a kind of nobility, that instantiate the proud sensibility of hip-hop. The titles of the works sound like familiar sound bites, as if they might be taken from hit songs, embedding these figures in the world of rap and popular culture.Let’s call these portraits Maluka’s accents, an awareness of difference and situatedness, of specificity in time and space. When Hamid Naficy coined the phrase “accented cinema” in 2001 he was referring to postcolonial filmmakers living and working in the West and the way in which their practices stood out, or were accented, in that context.Similarly, born out of his experiences of growing up black in South Africa, and the expectations to be African in Amsterdam where he studied, Maluka is very aware of his accents – linguistic and otherwise. However, his is no simple meditation on periphery and centre, belonging and difference. Rather, Maluka’s decision to centre the urban icons of black youth globally, forces viewers to see the world as an exilic space where we are all someone else’s other. Read this way, Maluka invites us to hear our own accents.Liese van der Watt lectures in Art History at the University of Cape Town

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