When Jonathan asked me to open his show I had mixed feelings. I was delighted as I am a huge fan of his work… like all of us here … but apprehensive as well. I am not a devotee of obscure verbal meanderings at exhibition openings and I am always suspicious if the text is superior to the work.
When the scholastic pitch is so high that only dogs with academically tuned hearing can grasp what it’s all about, I want to run a mile. So speeches at openings are not my favourite. I might have to consider throwing in a few erudite words …a LIMINAL here, a POTENTIATE there… or what about an ANTAGONALITY?… This done to lift and confuse the tone of the night.
Here are one or two art speak sales pitches:
“…a group of sculptural works that aims at a void that signifies precisely the non-being of what it represents…”
What about this one…?
“His work explores the relationship between the Military-Industrial Complex and midlife subcultures. With influences as diverse as Derrida and John Lennon, shifting derivatives become reconfigured through frantic and personal practice and the viewer is left with a testament to the darkness of our condition.”
And finally this peach:
“My practice examines hesitation as part of the process of decision-making, where the object is neither the object of objecthood nor the art-object. It is rather the oblique object of my intentions. ”
Heaven help us.
As they say in the classics “ You can’t polish a turd”.
Thankfully Jonathans work needs very little by way of introduction, and certainly none of that art-puffery.
It speaks for itself, clearly, articulately and is brazenly accurate. Any text that might be needed to expand his concerns can be read in the work itself. Its how I like it!
In the art world we might spend a year or two working on 5 new ideas, dress each of these up into a series so that now there are…hey presto… 25 new works, and go through excruciating angst when delivering these to the safety of a compliant village, which is the art world. A small, cloistered but mildly bitchy crowd.
Jonathan on the other hand cranks out, with graphic and conceptual acuity, dozens of cartoons monthly. He delights and pisses off an anonymous, massive and sometimes volatile audience every day and every week…. He produces between 20 and 25 each month. He does this month in and month out. Year in and year out….more than 4500 thus far.
When Jonathan confirmed these numbers by SMS recently…I could actually hear my brain Fizzle and then Explode at the gargantuan scale of the enterprise…looking back at what has been done…and then more so looking forward at what still needs to be done!
How does he come up with all his ideas? How can he possibly generate so many?
We might ask him…” When is the well going to run dry?”
And he answers us with persistent and hilarious regularity…. and if you are like me …it’s the first page you go to wherever his cartoons appear…The Times…The Sunday Times…The Mail and Guardian …etc etc.
The offshoot of his work seen here …The puppet animated programme ZA News, which he co-founded and which the SABC and E.TV shamefully refused to flight, is an added delight to his output. It has won 6 SAFTAS including this years Best TV Comedy.
Jonathan …we have to ask you…” Do you ever sleep?”
He has produced 18 of his yearly annuals of cartoons, besides a number of other themed collections, such as the new one DEMOCRAZY. I have bought most of them…but his popularity is shared by my friends and extended family, all with nimble fingers…so my collection has dwindled substantially over the years. I have to forgive them. I understand. He is that popular and his annual’s that coveted.
Looking at his early work is grimly nostalgic. You kind of long for the obviously defined “Goodies Vs Baddies” that these cartoons describe. It all seemed a lot clearer then. I suspect some of the anger of the present is fuelled by the bitter disappointment with the new political powers that be, and this results in a harder and more focused comic attack. Good. We share your sentiments. This is as it should be.
He has the skill to articulate through visual prompts and absurdities, exaggeration and invention, and through images which when rendered seem to echo what many of us are thinking and trying to articulate. He in effect provides us with visual icons or hooks on which we can hang our collective displeasures at South Africa’s unfolding social and political dramas. And importantly, he does this with a disarming humour. We are able to share in his mirth only because his renderings resonate so accurately with our own understandings of the complexities of our lives. With his cartoons he gathers around a band of like-minded compatriots who laugh and cajole collectively at the dumbness, the tragedy and the comedy of these shared experiences. He is able to distil and translate current affairs into images with powerful provocations and reflections, and these are always legible, cogent and more often than not memorable.
Zapiro is by far South Africa’s most loved, and might I add, most vilified cartoonist. Loved…because his is our collective voice of reason…and vilified…well… because his is our collective voice of reason.
He has a set of balls…if the feminists excuse the metaphor…that I certainly don’t have. My recent brief interlude with the state during The Spear saga and the accompanied threats of violence is something that Jonathan has had to deal with over many years. He is an old and seasoned campaigner. He is not afraid to stand up to that pressure either. His notorious 2008 cartoon metaphorically reflecting on the rape of justice by Zuma, that shows Lady Justice being held down by leaders of the ruling alliance while the president unzips his trousers in preparation, has become legend. This and others he drew became the focus of legal battles between the ANC and the Office of the President, on the one side, and Zapiro and the various newspapers that he supplies, on the other.
These Million dollar lawsuits that the State and Number One threatened him with did nothing but fuel his fires, it seems. In 2011 he revisited this iconic cartoon… but now he draws a ravaged Lady Justice shouting “ Fight Sister Fight” to another women being held down by the ANC Secretary General, our good friend Gwede Mantashe. The victim is draped in a sash that spells out “Press Freedom”, if I remember correctly, and is an apt comment on the proposed Protection of Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal. Hard hitting to say the least. But always persuasive.
The unfolding events around my own small battle with the sate and the president included a court case. Jonathan was curious as to how this legal drama would play out. What had been hanging over him for many years came down on us like a quick ton of Kafkaesque shit. His case was finally going to be heard a few months after our court date. We also shared legal teams and this court case would give us all an indication of the way ahead for him. He was obviously concerned and curious. And was also very supportive…
As you might recall my legal drama ended farcically when the intended 3 -day hearing was abandoned an hour and a half into proceedings…with the ANC’S legal representative bursting into tears after being grilled unceremoniously by the 3 Judges in the high court. The ANC’s advocate had conceded that my work was not about race nor racist…and he would now have a battle going forward arguing that this was indeed the case. So he crumbled…as did the ANC’s case.
We watched these legal shenanigans live on TV at Jonathans house…and apart from feeling that, like Alice in Wonderland, we had dropped through a rabbit’s hole into an absurd parallel universe…it also gave me the opportunity to witness Jonathan at work.
I can only describe a kind of frenetic activity…TV blaring in his studio downstairs while he maps out ideas…calls to and from Nic Dawes the current Mail and Guardian editor…the cartoon was for the following day’s edition…sketching out a few ideas at the same time …sharing these with us…gauging our response…watching a bit of the TV with us upstairs…showing us various text options…and running back to his drawing board.
His uncertainty…his quickness and his doubt is evident… as he skilfully puts together a very current cartoon. I think it is this uncertainty and this self- reflection that tempers and balances his craft. This and the doubt. I know that there are one or two works out there that once done and published, Jonathan has reflected on and reconsidered their effectiveness and tone. They might have pushed beyond his own barometer of decency, if you will.
But this reflection and culling is the domain of the artist, and the artist alone. Certainly not that of a political party, or a censorship board, for that matter. And with the long shadow cast by the history of the apartheid regimes attempts to purge ideas and censor dissent being so recent and present, we all have to be vigilant going forward. It is quite easy to insult…to insult for effect and attention… and even though, as Salmon Rushdie has said…” The freedom of expression includes the freedom to insult”…Jonathan’s work is mediated through this processing and cross- questioning, and is ultimately guided by his conscience… and in a sense his doubt. The limits to freedom of expression will, and should be, guided by each individuals conscience, rather than be determined by an arbitrary political faction of the current custodians of our constitutional democracy. No matter how difficult the ideas expressed may appear to be. It is this particular consciousness that is ultimately reflected in his work shown here, and will be reflected in the work of other film- makers, stand up comics and the like. Each will push the boundaries and limits of this freedom of expression as they seen fit… and as is protected by our eloquent constitution.
Jonathan’s final victory in this fight for freedom of expression came when the state, after many years of resisting a battle in court… because they knew they were probably on a legal hiding to nothing… the state withdrew all charges against him and the various newspapers the night before the case was to be heard by the high court. Cynical, scared and a waste of tax payer’s money. It still seems like a hollow victory against a cowardly state. But victory nonetheless.
Jonathan’s development of the iconic and ubiquitous Shower Head has become part of South Africa’s popular culture. An icon. I recently watched on TV with great delight, Malema berating Zuma and doing the shower head sign… Hilarious.
Going through his back catalogue it is impossible to pick out favourites. There are just too many…My favourite will always be the next one…
Jonathan…your ability to concretize sometimes complicated social and political nuances into visual metaphors, and to do so with humour, is a delight for us…your audience. The eloquence in the way you are able to express your position, your anger, and your humorous take on this sad and hilarious country is fresh, insightful and cathartic. But this is almost always done with a profound celebration of humanity. It is this thread that runs through your work that might set it apart from others in your field. There is very little sanctimoneousness and flag waving and there is an equal ness with which you let your arrows fly. It is possibly this humanness …a mentschlekheyd… if you excuse the yiddish term…that tempers potential vitriol and grandstanding, and as a result your underlying message is not bitter.
Paradoxically, it is through these focused satirical attacks that you actually begin to describe for us your preferred ideal … your vision of a world that you would like to live in. I almost hope we don’t get to there too soon… we would be deprived of your uproarious provocations if we did.