Ukubhabha / Kumbururuka / To Fly by Ronald Muchatuta

Previously on view at Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg and WORLDART in Cape Town.

We want to fly but we need a Moroka

An emboldened Ronald Muchatuta has crafted the largest single work he has ever put together. The ambitious mixed media artwork which is rendered in oil pastel, acrylic, mosaic and collage consists of sixty square panels of 50cm x 50cm each. The entire work covers three metres in height and five metres in length.

Inside the intimate setting at WORLDART his latest offering, which is named Ukubhabha / Kumbururuka / To Fly, dominates a wall which usually holds two or three canvases. The work is part of the exhibition, What is South Africa, even?, curated by Carlyn Strydom of Museum Her whose approach to curating leans heavily towards the more idealistic and participatory purposes of art than a directly commercial focus. In this mode of experimentation Strydom has acknowledged the necessity in allowing unsung artists the space to reflect on current contemporary South African struggles. The question posed by the curator is a complex one. Spoken out loud the question is Millennial-speak for a state of being perplexed. The question posed by the exhibition might as well be a maze.

Ukubhabha/Kumbururuka/To fly by Ronald Muchatuta Mixed media on board 300cm x 500cm 2018

On first impressions the connections to the well known Picasso work, Guernica, seem like they’re obvious due to the size and the minimalist palette. With the exception of Muchatuta’s introduction of the colour brown (by means of collage) they are quite similar in their choice of greyscale. The clearer connections are perhaps the references to Greek culture and mythology which pervaded Picasso’s work throughout his seventy-eight-year career.

On the top, side and bottom rows of To Fly the figures portrayed are reminiscent of those in ancient Greece’s temple reliefs. The row depicts people engaged in warfare, and with this row he lays the foundation for his ‘argument’. Under the reign of Alexander the Great ancient Greece rose to its position of world power but we know that his empire crumbled soon after his death – being split between his generals. Empires rise and eventually they fall – the ruins of their achievements remaining behind as a symbol of their past glory. Stepping back to survey this artwork, more references to the Greek empire become apparent but one needs to be more observant. Hidden in plain sight one can see the white outlines which form an architectural structure resembling the front of the Parthenon. The artist points out the conquests of ancient empires but also shows us the structures (represented by pillars) which held up the summit (the Parthenon’s roof) of Greece’s achievements.

Ronald handles the surfaces in a methodical way – building the narrative at the top with a reminder of historical precedent and reflecting the present realities at the bottom of his fifteen square metre composition. In the middle Muchatuta spreads out various South African laws accompanied by visual elements such as faces, hands, West African patterns and figures. In writing out the names of these laws and phrases from their contents the artist elaborates on other mechanisms beyond physical violence which have been used to oppress and to uphold the reign of ruling powers. Scanning the entire arrangement one sees The Group Areas Act, The Glen Grey Act, The Native Land Act and The Asiatic Immigration Amendment Act. There are many more of these ‘pillars’ depicted in Muchatuta’s artwork, but it does the artist and the prospective audience a huge disservice to try and squeeze all of them into a list. However, in the process of recording an exhaustive list of laws in this mixed media piece he sets about proving how, over the passing of hundreds of years, laws have been used as a tool of the colonial and apartheid regimes to forcefully dispossess and transfer power violently to themselves.

I think back to Picasso and remember another preoccupation which he had with Greek Mythology. Throughout his work he repeated the motif of the Minotaur. This appears in Guernica as well.

While Ronald’s piece contains no Minotaur he does make reference to the myth about Daedalus and Icarus. In this Greek myth we learn of Daedalus who befriends King Minos who commissions him to build a labyrinth but some time afterwards he falls foul of the king by assisting one of the king’s enemies in escaping the labyrinth. Daedalus and his son Icarus are imprisoned in the very same labyrinth which he had designed – the very same one inhabited by the Minotaur. In order to escape the oppressive structure Daedalus crafts wings with which they would fly from the maze-like construction. These wings are held together by wax and so the father warns his son not to fly too close to the sun for fear the wax might be melted but also not to fly too close to the sea which would dampen the wings. Icarus, in his youthful overconfidence flies too close to the sun and plummets to his death in the sea where he drowns.

In the centre of Muchatuta’s artwork are two wings protruding from the surface. These wings bring us back to the title. When asked about them Ronald talks about the youth and the challenges they face. He points to the word ‘Moroka’ in one of the squares which is the word for a person or a “rain maker” who would appeal to the higher powers, for relief and rain, by means of rituals in times of drought.

Ronald’s response to the curatorial question is intensely layered. The artwork is a detailed visual thesis with which he describes and proves the cumulative effect that hundreds of years of oppressive South African Apartheid and colonial policy still have on the current generation’s ability to make progress. Whatever South Africa even is the artwork Ukubhabha / Kumbururuka / To Fly is the artists way of explaining that the contemporary realities are so deeply entrenched that when the youth cry – as in this artwork – “Mr President, the youth are thirsty” – some drastic, supernatural intervention is required.

In the throwing up of our hands asking, ‘What is South Africa, even?’  the answer might be: “We need a Moroka, we need a rainmaker”

 Text by Scott Eric Williams







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