Sean O'Toole


Vusi Mbulali, Portrait of Julius Malema, 2014. Photo courtesy of Madelene Cronjé / Mail & Guardian

For the most part, the life of a painting is inglorious. It is hatched in brilliant daylight, exhibited under artificial light, sold in the shade, and tends to die in darkness. The journey from studio to storeroom, from paradise to perdition, typically involves encounters with defined places (gallery, art fair, museum, lounge, lobby, auction house, storeroom) and people (dealer, collector, curator, handler, auctioneer, commentator and various unclassifiable grifters). The increasing digitalisation of spectatorship and consumption hasn’t unsettled this formalised circuit. If anything, it has reified it.


I’m sketching a thesis, one that is broadly true of how art is trafficked as commodity. Of course, there are exceptions, glorious refusals that illuminate the dominant organising principle.


In May 2014, three days before South Africa’s general election, Economic Freedom Fighters commander in chief Julius Malema drew his party’s campaigning to a close with a rally at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria. An estimated 30,000 red berets, as the EFF’s party faithful are colloquially known, attended the event. Described by EFF commissar Mbuyiseni Ndlozi as “a festival for the oppressed,” there was something carnival-like about the rally. Supporters brandished a wooden coffin with then-president Jacob Zuma’s face pasted on it. They also wielded a pink-skinned mannequin wearing a diaper with Zuma’s name inscribed on it, a butternut on a stick (a mocking reference to the president’s physiognomy) and – striking for me – a large oil painting of Malema.


Two months later, at a Soweto rally celebrating the EFF’s first anniversary as a political party, this painting, signed by J.V. Mbulali, made another appearance. And then in 2015, there it was at a gathering in Rustenberg. Political rallies have long functioned as improvisational theatre. In the early 1990s, photographer T.J. Lemon documented the costumes and props (including outlandish decorative guns) displayed by supporters of the recently unbanned African National Congress. But Ekurhuleni-born artist Vusi Mbulali’s head-and-shoulders portrait of Malema in obligatory red doesn’t tidily slot into this local canon of impoverished agitprop. The work is too polished, too familiar in its operation.


The veneration it elicits links it to a popular sub-genre of South African painting: heroic nationalism. There is a storeroom at the Voortrekker Monument filled with veristic likenesses of unremembered white men. South Africa’s public realm is increasingly being stocked with naturalistic bronzes depicting heroines and heroes of the struggle against white power, many courtesy of businessman Dali Tambo. Knowing what a thing is typologically is only helpful up to a point.


Every artwork, however formulaic and obvious, possesses a submerged biography. If an artwork is a sunken object, art critics are scuba divers. An art critic’s role, and I say this without obligatory finger wagging, is to plunge beneath the meniscus of the apparent, to get wet. Intrigued by the Malema portrait, which had come to resemble an ersatz religious banner (or khorugv) of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I donned my wetsuit and snorkel, and waded into the shallows.


Mbulali told me that a friend, an EFF supporter, had rented his painting for use at various rallies. He expressed admiration for Malema but was unclear about his own political allegiances. A mandatory register of state gifts records that in February 2014, a month after Mbaluli painted his Malema portrait, the artist gifted two bottles of wine and a framed painting to Zuma.


Patronage in the arts involves proximity to power. In 2019, Mbulali exhibited a series of portraits of deceased ANC president Oliver Tambo, commissioned by his foundation, at Constitution Hill. Mbulali’s portraiture style ranges from naturalistic (à la Edward Roworth’s 1903 portrait of Cecil Rhodes) to expressionistic. His more artfully distressed compositions bear traces of his mentor, Kamogelo Masemola, a KwaThema artist whose faith in the workshop method was inspired by his own tutelage under fellow East Rand painters Madi Phala and Sam Nhlengethwa. 


Mbulali’s 2019 exhibition, with its demonstrations of facility through figural assertion, is typical of the frictionless circulatory network that characterises the life of so much painting. In retrospect, what intrigued me most about his Malema portrait was that it briefly operated outside the “system”. It became a devotional object brandished by working people. It was scrummed over by news photographers. It illustrated vexed polemics by South Africa’s commentariot class. Throughout, it was treated as self-evident and explicable, an image of a notable public figure. Its life as an artwork, a painting, a thing with a submerged history of influences and associations, networks and lineages, was studiously ignored. Its refusal to play by the rules went unnoticed.