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Swastika artwork ‘not aimed at Jewish community’

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JULIE LEIBOWITZ

Mandla Sibeko, the Director of the FNB JoburgArtFair, described the work – which had Nelson Mandela’s image set on top of the Nazi flag, with the words, “unmasked piece of shit” written below him – as an “ambush performance”. He said it “wasn’t part of the scheduled programme of events”, according to a statement released to the media.

In an interview with talk show host Eusebius McKaiser on 702 last Thursday, the artist, Ayanda Mabulu, explained that the work criticised the ANC and Mandela’s legacy. “The ANC has failed our people. They are neo-Nazis. Our people are poor and hungry. The Nazi flag is on the same wavelength as what the ANC has become.” He pointed out that, “Some Jewish people there [at the art fair] didn’t understand that I was sympathising with them.”

McKaiser asked Mabulu about the historical accuracy of depicting Mandela with symbols associated with the extermination of millions. He responded, “What Hitler did – he killed Jewish people. Black people are hustling every day, suffering because the people who were supposed to free them stuffed up. We are burning inside.”

McKaiser pointed out that the comparison was factually unfounded, saying there was a fundamental difference between a party that didn’t deliver, and a government that put people in gas chambers. Mabulu responded, “We are in an everyday, genocidal, Nazi-type situation as black people.”

He was referring to babies dying at state hospitals, and the landless, jobless, poverty stricken situation most black people found themselves in today.

In a sinister turn of events, Mabulu claimed that he had been followed and his car smashed after leaving 702’s premises, according to The Citizen newspaper.

“The work is meant to provoke,” said art commentator Robin Scher. “It doesn’t say anything profound. It is anarchistic. Writing a story about it won’t achieve anything other than to further the artist’s objectives.”

Scher said what was offensive for him about the work was not necessarily the use of the flag, but the work’s anger, hate, and self-involvement, which “we see so much of today”.

He added, “Freedom of expression carries the proviso that if someone does something that curtails another’s freedom, or displays something hateful that signifies the opposite of freedom, it creates an interesting conversation about whether it should be censored.”

His views were echoed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which said, according to The Citizen, “The Nelson Mandela Foundation… accepts that freedom of expression gives artists a creative licence which at times will result in work which is more or less disturbing. The work by Ayanda Mabulu which briefly was put on public display without due authorisation in our view goes beyond the reasonable limit. We find it deeply offensive.”

David Saks, the Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said the board was not involved in the fracas because, fundamentally, the artwork wasn’t directed at Jews or the Jewish community.

“Though the work isn’t aimed at us, it does use something we are sensitive about as a self-promoting shock tactic. This is distasteful and offensive,” he said.

He pointed out that the artwork was more provocative than a Nazi flag flown in the backyard of a private house in Johannesburg a year ago, for example, because it was displayed in a public space. In the latter case, the owner was pressured to remove the flag by the board and local residents.

Saks said it was possible to use the swastika appropriately. After all, the symbol was “part of human heritage”. An example could be advertising for the musical Cabaret, set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis were rising to power. And, the swastika could – and often is – used to make an appropriately strong point. But, in this instance, it was simply a case of “tasteless rubbish”.

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