Responsibility in Representation: Buthelezi

It is disappointing when one reads an article, in a reputable newspaper, that sparks serious debate or controversy with no person’s name attached to it! But then again there is something of a damaging effect attached to that article when the reader infers wrong meaning based on what the article under scrutiny purports. I draw the art supporter and lover of the visual arts to an article published in the recent South African Art Times (August 2009), page 13, wherein the ‘Staff Writer’ of this important art newspaper writes about the artist Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi. It is my belief that the Staff writer owes Buthelezi an apology.

The ‘Staff Writer’ of this prestigious newspaper has done three things which are not palatable as far as representation is concerned. Firstly he or she has misquoted a question that was posed to the artist by me. 2 Mbongeni at Work Catalogue

Secondly he or she has given away market value of the artists work as if they were doing a sale pitch as well as alluded to the artist life style.

Thirdly the writer of this article has ignored to reveal the contribution of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi to Contemporary South African Art, by so doing this he/she denies South Africa to be acquainted with one of the most important artist in our country practicing today¹.

This approach to writing gives a discerning reader acquainted with this country’s art the impression that the newspaper in question is careless in its approach to content concerning ‘some artists’.

By hiding behind the name ‘Staff Writer’, which in a sense, delimits debate and is imbibed with the grey area effect – for we do not know who writes, is suspicious of disrespect for the subject matter. As far as the article in question is concerned the discerning reader must just read between the lines to pick up the underlying message; that the development of black artists in this country has as its highest rung luxury and a disengagement with their immediate community. Such is a stigma that is erected and fixed.

So I shall write back to the Staff Writer, let us get rid of the quotation marks – for I am addressing the South African Art Times itself – it is they who have given space to a shallow reportage covering one of our most important contemporary artists in this country carelessly.

Let us established a fact concerning the day when Mbongeni R. Buthelezi gave a Walkabout of his exhibition to the Art Museum’s volunteers – the education assistants with whom I work very closely, it is only that day when I was present to ask a few questions, which one of them you misquote in your article, Staff Writer.

Were you there when Mbongeni gave the Education Assistants of the Pretoria Art Museum a walkabout?  If you were part of the group on that afternoon prior to the opening of the exhibition you will have gathered that the gallery owner that represents Mbongeni was present as well. You will also have heard him speak about the danger that an artist can run in inflating prices of his artworks at the outset when his or her career takes off, even during the development and run of the practice. A name must be built gradually as a brand.

You would also remember, that is if you were there which I doubt you were, dear Staff Writer, that the words you put in my mouth were not my exact words.

I asked: how did you develop your innovative technique of painting with plastic?

You say I asked: how did you develop the unusual and rather smelly technique?

Now dear staff writer (see how you loose your capitalization) why did you not introduce your self at the walkabout? The artist was there; available for discussion of his artistic output and I was also there to discuss the education benefits of having that exhibition at the Art Museum, and while you were at it you should’ve asked permission to quote me – you have no right to assert the power of documentation until you have stated your identity and we (your subject matter; the documented) grants you permission; by your carelessness you missed a one on one engagement with the artist. Surely your article is devoid of this intercourse (one on one) for those of us fortunate enough to have been there, and those who follow your column on a regular basis.

mbongeni in his studio

Reading your article, it is as if you are reporting a lethal riot from a remote podium without direct contact with the unfolding events. By entering the real space of your reportage you would’ve been able to highlight the fact that the artist, later in his career, returned to Funda (not forgetting the education he received at Wits) to teach and more also that he has been involved in Social development programmes using art as a tool to transform our society towards creativity and environmental preservation awareness which is an issue at the top of the agenda on this planet. You omitted these vital facts thus not revealing to your readers the emergence of new media’s interrogation with the degradation of our natural environment as far as humanity is concerned and Mbongeni’s contribution towards the reversal of the negative impact of this phenomenon – pollution by humanity, If we bear this fact in mind Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi advances further into the horizon by a giant leap amongst South African contemporary artists practicing today with regard to the green revolution.

Instead of entering real space and informing us that your paper was planning to write a profile article on Mbongeni you piped the same old song about struggle in the township and the yearning of the aspiring black artist to become a successful visual art practitioner which we have heard and read many times before. Why is this not the same methodology (omissions of vital information) you employ when you write about ‘other’ artists in your prestigious paper?

Naturally you have situated Buthelezi within a stereotypical fabric which will stay with his documentation forever when he is encountered through research. Need I remind you, staff writer, that your paper is part of a process of documentation of the development of South African Art? That it is presently constructing, together with other publications, the narrative of South African Art history. Black artists have evolved beyond the ideology you allude to in your article: They do not feel sorry for themselves anymore, they engage with the discourses of the visual art on the same platform as any other artists alive today does. You failed to reveal this in your article.

Your article lacks first hand intercourse with the artist. It is as if you used other newspapers and other publications’ contributions covering Mbongeni to construct your article. Take heed staff writer that should you have, on the day you claim your presence in our midst, introduced your self as a writer of the SA Art Times the artist would’ve joyously given you an exclusive interview, you would have learn that over the run of the exhibition the artist was going to do demonstrations of his ‘plastic fantastic’ painting technique and if you cared you would have attended and experienced the technique your self and have a better phrase for it your self. And you would have covered this in your exposition. This revelation of the practical demonstration would have inspired an interest in those venues where the exhibition is scheduled to go after Tshwane/Pretoria.

After that direct contact even more so you will have respected the fact that you do not have the right to speak about prices of artworks when you profile an artist – but if it is a sale pitch at an auction by all means you can. You would’ve covered the technical explanation of the artistic production of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi’s innovative painting with decorum like your paper does with other artists it covers (as I have hinted above already).

You have wasted space by not praising an achievement that is in the person of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi as far as evolving a progressive stylistic approach to painting using a non traditional medium is concerned. In a nut shell you should’ve reflected on new media which is an avenue whose door continues to open ever so wider in contemporary art’s evolution with reference to this artist.

Your article, while it might be well meant to other readers out there, it lacks first hand intercourse with the subject matter it purports to be about and runs the risk of an ideology that this country has interrogated and phased out. You take us backward SA Art Times and I believe you owe Mbongeni R. Buthelezi an apology.

*The images appearing in this article were scanned from the new catalog of Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi’s  work.  The catalog accompanied his exhibition entitled Imizwa Yami (My Feelings) that was on show at the Pretoria Art Museum  during from 13 May – 16 August 2009.

11 August

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009


1. The reader may find it interesting to read the article Mbongeni Buthelezi: Blowing life into plastic this work narrates my first impression with the artist.