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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Happy Birthday Mr. President

There’s a tempest in a teapot brewing in South Africa over a painting by Yuill Damaso modeled on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp that depicts Nelson Mandela as the corpse surrounded by various South African political luminaries (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South African President Jacob Zuma and former presidents F.W. de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki. Performing the autopsy is Nkosi Johnson, an HIV/AIDS child activist who died from the disease in 2001 at the age of 12.

The painting’s artistic merits are questionable (In all fairness I can’t really judge it based on the online image) but it’s too literal for my taste and looks a little awkward: all those well-known visages corralled around the autopsy table. And Mandela’s arm and chest area look clumsily rendered. But the metaphoric message is quite clever. Here you have Johnson (the only one who has “passed on” to the other side) showing the assembled group, who’s on a fact-finding mission to discover what makes Mandela tick, that he’s but a flesh and blood man. Damaso has said his message is clear, these leaders need to stop searching for what makes Mandela a great man and get down to the business of leadership and build the country.

I guess I’m sorry Mandela had to be faced with this on the eve of his 92nd birthday and so soon after the death of his 13 year-old great granddaughter, Zenani. But I also think he's a sophisticate, and if he didn't initially understand what the painting's about, once he grasped its meaning he'd see it was not meant to be disrespectful to him. Of course, at 92 he's uncomfortably close to that autopsy table and therefore it might not sit all that well.

It’s a funny thing about outrage; loud enough and it ends up drawing attention to something that if left alone would pass by unnoticed. (The painting’s on view at a shopping center after all.) With the notoriety, not only has it probably come to Mandela’s attention, but Damaso’s future success is no doubt assured.

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