Sunday, November 26, 2006

Shifting Forward Through Art | Mustafa Maluka

Shifting Forward Through Art

Mustafa Maluka’s gigantic portraits make us confront individuals from the outside. He spoke to Niren Tolsi

ike a runny-nosed kid begging on Long Street, there is a hunger to artist Mustafa Maluka. Only, his glue is information. His bleeding-heart Scandinavian backpacker is his own determination “to be a great painter” and for ragged clothes and mournful pleas, substitute paint, canvas and an ability to incisively interrogate notions of ourselves and “the other”.

Having grown up in Bishop Lavis on the Cape Flats, he left Cape Town as the typical clichéd struggling artist in 2000 to study at De Ateliers in Amsterdam and returned in 2004 with a Tollman Young Artist Award and an international reputation built on solo exhibitions in The Netherlands including 2001’s The Realness at the Galerie Tanya Rumpff, Haarlem and Hard Living (An Ethnomethodological Approach) at De Ateliers.

He has also participated in several group exhibitions, including Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art at New York’s Museum for African Art in 2004 and at the 4th Biennale of the Pan African Circle of Artists in Lagos, Nigeria.

Maluka, who also runs a website called and helps release mix-tapes of young Cape Flats artists on his Aevenger label admits to the early positive effects of hip-hop culture: “Like most young people of my generation we grew up with hip-hop culture, we had it all around and you -- this culture and this consciousness -- and I’m grateful for that.

“For young people from the Cape Flats it’s provided us with an outlet, a passageway for us to reach higher goals. It still plays an important role and it shaped what and who I am today, but there is a certain point when you go off in your own direction when you start finding yourself and what your voice is,” he says.

Hip-hop culture which on the Cape Flats can be traced back to the Eighties and groups such as Prophets of da City and Black Noise, which are still involved in grassroots activity with youngsters -- has been the saviour for many people in ghettos filled with button-smoking-induced apathy and gangsterism. Maluka feels it instilled in him a “do-it-yourself attitude”, which saw him hold his first solo exhibition (Melanin Millennium) at the Mau-Mau Gallery in Cape Town in 1997. But it wasn’t just hip-hop. Maluka points to a politically conscious family and a father who started off as a bricklayer and is now a teacher studying towards his doctorate as further inspiration: “My father was the person who taught me about social constructions, this was before I even knew what it was. Then I started doing my own research and started reading philosophy, psychology, cognitive dissidence, which in some ways have led me to the themes I examine now.”

He studied graphic design for two years at Peninsula Technikon before having to drop out because of a lack of funds. While studying art theory there he “got introduced to all these artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein and Jean Michel Basquiat and I just latched on to what they were doing”. This proved a starting point for Maluka, who feels moving to Amsterdam and being surrounded by talented artists on a daily basis, the rigours of “the boot camp for young artists which was De Ateliers” and economic and social conditions conducive to focusing on his art helped his work shift forward aesthetically.

The experience of moving from being the Cape Flats outsider in Cape Town to being the outsider in a foreign land also impacted on what was a critical point in his development as both an artist and an adult.

Attempting to confound and question our preconceived notions, our stereotypical responses to language and people -- the “fragile” stickers on the socialised baggage we carry around with us -- Maluka combines elements of graffiti, pop art and graphic design in his work and likens an exhibition to “putting on a play”.

“I have these characters that I use ... I have this world that I have created with these people saying things, but these people represent people in the real world. Normally with each show I do I try and flesh out who they are and the experiences they go through.”

He held his first solo South African exhibition in seven years, Accented Living (A Rough Guide), at Michael Stevenson in Cape Town last year. According to Maluka, the figures represented “all had accents”.

“What are accents? Your accent is only noticed when you leave where you come from. It’s like a kid from the Cape Flats going into the city: he’s accented. He’s entering a world and a space that is foreign to him, it’s different to where he comes from, but it is the dominant world. And there is this negotiation that goes on. That’s an example to localise it. But I was thinking about me being in Amsterdam and being accented, a guy moving from India to England getting accented because accented people get treated differently depending on what kind of accent you have ... So in this Rough Guide, I was fleshing out aspects of these people’s personalities and the things they have to go through, which is mainly an immigrant experience.

“This is something I say over and over again: I feel that my generation of black people in this country, we are immigrants into South Africa. We are the new South Africans, South Africa is a country that already existed, but it was a white country from which we were excluded. We have been entering this space only in the past 10 years and in this process there is a lot of negotiation and renegotiation that is taking place and what you find is that people need to switch accents in order to fit in with the dominant group -- which is white people in society.”

About the artistic process, Maluka said: “How I produce these paintings, the portraits especially, is that I collect images with a particular gaze, they have to have a particular strength and pride. That’s a kind of starting point and I use these images as a shell. I’m not painting the person in the picture, it’s just a shell and I flesh it out with meaning by applying paint. That is when it becomes a painting.”

New Painting runs at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban until April 23 and moves to the Unisa Art Gallery, Pretoria from May 9 to June 2

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