Richard Mudariki’s Visual Journal of the Plague Year
By Sean O’Toole
In May 2019, seven months before municipal health authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan released a media statement detailing cases of an atypical viral pneumonia, Richard Mudariki held a solo exhibition in New York. Titled The Politics of Painting, his well-received presentation at the specialist African art fair 1—54 was preceded by routinized logistics that, even now, determine the movement of people and things. Paintings were selected, crated and shipped. Insurance was arranged. Flights and hotels were scheduled. Media releases were despatched. Engagements with collectors were made. In short, risk and opportunity – the foundations of every exhibition – were seized with both hands
As part of the choreography for his New York exhibition, Mudariki’s representatives, Barnard Gallery, produced a limited-edition book. ‘My work has often been referred to as being political, which it is,’ writes Mudariki in an autobiographical essay appearing in the sumptuous publication Ndini Here? (Is this me?). Not content to leave it there, the artist explains that his relationship with politics is ‘non-linear, multidimensional and multifaceted’. To put it slightly differently, he embraces complex thinking. Cause and effect do not operate in a unidirectional continuum, but influence each other.
But how exactly does Mudariki define that slippery word ‘politics’. It is, he writes, a complex phenomenon that extends ‘beyond the state to include power relations in communities, companies, families, schools, professions and so on’. In other words, politics is pervasive in all social phenomena – including those shaped by a pandemic. Although written prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mudariki’s statement provides a helpful lens for viewing Gore ra 2020, a cycle of twelve paintings variously engaged with the politics of a tumultuous year. One social event dominates this wry body of work.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation made the assessment that Covid-19 could be characterised as a pandemic. The world abruptly paused. Borders closed. The skies emptied of planes. Admissions to hospitals in some countries escalated. As people sequestered in place, interpersonal communication, newsgathering, transacting and leisure went digital. Professions were also ruthlessly audited. Where nurses, doctors and other essential workers were applauded, artists found their occupation widely dismissed as non-essential.
This callous assessment tends to miss a fundamental point about the role of time in art. Art is a deliberate and reflective practice that achieves its function by being unpunctual and dilatory, by being late. Time is integral to an appreciation of Gore ra 2020. It, time, is both the subject of Mudariki’s ambitious cycle of paintings, as well as the basis of its grid architecture. Working in the manner of European trompe-l'œil painters who naturalistically portrayed things like calendars, letters and books, Mudariki uses the settled graphic format of a Gregorian calendar to structure his graphically formulated statements on the fitful progress of the 2020 global health pandemic and the social inequalities it exposed.
Some of his calendars additionally feature doors – like on an advent calendar – from which black hands emerge and discrete objects are framed. (The recurrent motif of black hands throughout this body of work recalls the rousing opening sentence of a celebrated 1934 poem Richard Wright, ‘I am black and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them–’.) The formal structuring device of a calendar with doors enables Mudariki to play with notions of surface and depth, as well as to indulge in his penchant for text. It is repeated in all but one painting. His composition for the month of October depicts an open notebook rendered against a blank ground. The notebook lists three cancelled engagements.
Although exhibited out of sequence, Gore ra 2020 begins with a canvas representing January 2020. It includes a rendering of a Chinese-style porcelain urn decorated with two figures. At the base of the blue-and-white container appears the inscription “Wuhan”. It is, perhaps, a funerary urn. Peering through another cabinet door in the same composition is a partially visible black figure blowing a horned trumpet in the manner of herald. The cycle of paintings ends in December 2020. The subject of Mudariki’s final composition is not the Covid-19 pandemic, but the fractious 2020 United States presidential election. An airmail envelope gestures to the manufactured controversy around postal votes.
Although informed by personal experiences, Gore ra 2020 is not an intimate visual diary of a plague year in the manner of, say, Edvard Munch’s 1919 self-portrait of the artist recovering from Spanish flu. Rather, the work operates as a retrospective construction of collective experience. It is a narrative told in the past tense. Retrospection suits Mudariki’s sardonic mode as a narrative painter working in a caustic observational manner similar to New Objectivity painters like Otto Dix. It is also a method substantially informed by his early academic training as an archaeologist. History, Mudariki knows, is a story pieced together from fragments.
Although somewhat discontinuous with his large figural tableaus, Gore ra 2020 is nonetheless broadly in keeping with Mudariki’s formally inventive and allegorical style of painting. He arrived at this style early on. In 2001, while still a scholar living in Harare, Mudariki produced Chess Game of Life, a pencil drawing of a surrealistic landscape framed by mountains in the distance and featuring a chessboard in the foreground populated with various figural elements (a human head mounted on a plinth, a bull’s head, various figural totems). The work is redolent of Salvador Dali’s spatial innovations in his psychosocial tableaus.
Mudariki’s pronounced interest in organising pictorial space is visible in mature figure paintings like The Surgeon (2012), The Model (2015), A View of Cape Town from a Window (2016) and Monopoly (2018). These compositions variously hint at Mudariki’s interest in choreographing space to further animate and express his social commentary. The Surgeon, while demonstrably an allegory for Zimbabwean politics under former president Robert Mugabe, nonetheless registers Mudariki’s profound absorption with the black body. It is a ritual subject for Mudariki. Painting the black body in extremis, be it in need (see August), wounded (see July) or expired (see April), becomes an act of recovery. Painting may not be an essential service in the maelstrom of a pandemic, but it has an important memorial capacity.
Gore ra 2020 was conceived as a single work and is presented as a single installation composed of twelve parts. There is no prescribed sequence . At its debut in Cape Town, the months of July and February were shown next to each other. The former composition, July, depicts a black hand with the words “Stop GBV”, a reference to the sharp uptick in gender-based violence and murders of women by intimate partners during South Africa’s strict health lockdown. The latter composition, February, depicts a calendar populated with the simplified graphic icon for the Covid-19 virus, recognisable for its distinctive tulip-shaped spike proteins. This molecular portrait is a computer reconstruction of a cruder image observed with an electron microscope.
The randomised display of Gore ra 2020 has echoes in Gerhard Richter’s non-referential painting installation 4900 Colours (2007), which is composed of 196 panels of 25 coloured squares that can be re-configured in 11 variations. This correspondence is less important than recognising the muddying of cause and effect in Mudariki’s unexpected juxtapositions. Temporalities become scrambled. Insight has the potential to be refreshed.
Insight and pleasure are not mutually exclusive. A painting, writes Mudariki in his 2019 essay, is capable of providing both, of holding ‘two contradictory experiences,’ as he phrases it. On the one hand, he explains, a painting offers an encounter with ‘a flat, two-dimensional surface filled with colour’. This is the spectacle of pleasure enacted on a material surface. But, adds Mudariki, a painting is more than simply the organisation of vibrant matter. ‘It offers the possibility of a multi-dimensional experience, an illusion of space that becomes fact and imagination, reality and fiction.’ This outcome is only a possibility, he writes. Gore ra 2020 is Mudariki’s ambitious play at presenting a multi-dimensional story that cannot be contained by a single frame.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. His most recent book is Irma Stern: African in Europe - European in Africa (Prestel, 2021).