In May 2019, seven months before municipal health authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan released a media statement detailing cases of an atypical viral pneumonia, Richard Mudariki held a solo exhibition in New York. Titled ‘The Politics of Painting’, his well-received presentation at the specialist African art fair 1-54 was preceded by routinised logistics that, even now, determine the movement of people and things. Paintings were selected, crated and shipped. Insurance was arranged. Flights and hotels were scheduled. Media releases were despatched. Engagements with collectors were made. In short, risk and opportunity – the foundations of every exhibition – were seized with both hands.
Installation view of ‘Gore ra 2020’, 2021 at Barnard Gallery. Courtesy of the artist & Barnard Gallery.
As part of the choreography for his New York exhibition, Mudariki’s representatives, Barnard Gallery, produced a limited-edition book. ‘My work has often been referred to as being political, which it is,’ writes Mudariki in an autobiographical essay appearing in the sumptuous publication Ndini Here? (Is this me?). Not content to leave it there, the artist explains that his relationship with politics is ‘non-linear, multidimensional and multifaceted’. To put it slightly differently, he embraces complex thinking. Cause and effect do not operate in a unidirectional continuum but influence each other.
But how exactly does Mudariki define that slippery word ‘politics’. It is, he writes, a complex phenomenon that extends ‘beyond the state to include power relations in communities, companies, families, schools, professions and so on’. In other words, politics is pervasive in all social phenomena – including those shaped by a pandemic. Although written prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mudariki’s statement provides a helpful lens for viewing ‘Gore ra 2020’, a cycle of twelve paintings variously engaged with the politics of a tumultuous year. One social event dominates this wry body of work.
Richard Mudariki, January from the series ‘Gore ra 2020’. Oil on canvas, 2020-2021, 90 x 90cm. Courtesy of the artist & Barnard gallery.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation made the assessment that Covid-19 could be characterised as a pandemic. The world abruptly paused. Borders closed. The skies emptied of planes. Admissions to hospitals in some countries escalated. As people sequestered in place, interpersonal communication, news-gathering, transacting and leisure went digital. Professions were also ruthlessly audited. Where nurses, doctors and other essential workers were applauded, artists found their occupation widely dismissed as non-essential.
This callous assessment tends to miss a fundamental point about the role of time in art. Art is a deliberate and reflective practice that achieves its function by being unpunctual and dilatory, by being late. Time is integral to an appreciation of ‘Gore ra 2020’. It, time, is both the subject of Mudariki’s ambitious cycle of paintings, as well as the basis of its grid architecture. Working in the manner of European trompe-l’œil painters who naturalistically portrayed things like calendars, letters and books, Mudariki uses the settled graphic format of a Gregorian calendar to structure his graphically formulated statements on the fitful progress of the 2020 global health pandemic and the social inequalities it exposed.
Richard Mudariki, April from the series ‘Gore ra 2020’. Oil on canvas, 2020-2021, 90 x 90cm. Courtesy of the artist & Barnard Gallery.
Some of his calendars additionally feature doors – like on an advent calendar – from which black hands emerge and discrete objects are framed. (The recurrent motif of black hands throughout this body of work recalls the rousing opening sentence of a celebrated 1934 poem Richard Wright, ‘I am black, and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them–’.) The formal structuring device of a calendar with doors enables Mudariki to play with notions of surface and depth, as well as to indulge in his penchant for text. It is repeated in all but one painting. His composition for the month of October depicts an open notebook rendered against a blank ground. The notebook lists three cancelled engagements.
Although exhibited out of sequence, ‘Gore ra 2020’ begins with a canvas representing January 2020. It includes a rendering of a Chinese-style porcelain urn decorated with two figures. At the base of the blue-and-white container appears the inscription “Wuhan”. It is, perhaps, a funerary urn. Peering through another cabinet door in the same composition is a partially visible black figure blowing a horned trumpet in the manner of herald. The cycle of paintings ends in December 2020. The subject of Mudariki’s final composition is not the Covid-19 pandemic, but the fractious 2020 United States presidential election. An airmail envelope gestures to the manufactured controversy around postal votes.
Richard Mudariki, December from the series ‘Gore ra 2020’. Oil on canvas, 2020-2021, 90 x 90cm. Courtesy of the artist & Barnard Gallery.
Although informed by personal experiences, ‘Gore ra 2020’ is not an intimate visual diary of a plague year in the manner of, say, Edvard Munch’s 1919 self-portrait of the artist recovering from Spanish flu. Rather, the work operates as a retrospective construction of collective experience. It is a narrative told in the past tense. Retrospection suits Mudariki’s sardonic mode as a narrative painter working in a caustic observational manner similar to New Objectivity painters like Otto Dix. It is also a method substantially informed by his early academic training as an archaeologist. History, Mudariki knows, is a story pieced together from fragments.
The above text is an excerpt from South African writer and editor Sean O’Toole’s essay titled ‘Richard Mudariki’s Visual Journal of the Plague Year’.
The exhibition will be on view form the 16th of October until the 27 of November 2021. For more information please visit barnardgallery.com
Sean O’Toole is a writer and art critic based in Cape Town, South Africa.