Dathini Mzayiya‘s new exhibition Onder die reёnboog strale (Under the rainbow rays / Phantsi kwelitha lomgcamabala) on show at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock, Cape Town is an odyssey of inner and outer visions, first-person experiences and critical vantages that fracture and reassemble what we think we know and believe about living and dying. Premesh Lalu pays it a visit.
If I say that Dathini’s work is larger than life, I mean that the work functions, in every conceivable way as a history of the present, and more. I have three reasons for making such a claim. Firstly, Dathini’s work asks how the post-apartheid came to be what it is, and not something different. Secondly, through the work of art, he asks what has become of the human condition after apartheid. Thirdly, he asks how we re-assemble the resources for a different concept of life after apartheid.
These works then are not merely about archiving the present. Instead, they rearrange the terms of the debate about becoming post-apartheid of South Africa. Put simply, these are works about Life, even when they deal with death.
The best example of this sensibility may be found in the work that deals with the tragic fate of Chris Mahlangu, the man recently jailed for the killing of right-winger Eugene Terreblanche. It is empathy, rather than the cold facts of the law that marks Dathini’s rendering of the tragic life of Mahlangu. It is a sense of empathy that is both unconditional and unapologetic. Such empathy exceeds the determinations of the law, which simply criminalised Mahlangu by framing his life by the event of the killing of Terreblanche. In Dathini’s hands, Mahlangu recalls the long history and the dehumanising conditions of life that gave rise to the act of violence in the first place. Dathini looks upon Mahlangu not as a policeman would, but as a subject produced by a history of sadness. There is a lesson in this for us. It is a lesson that can be gleaned from the paradoxical words appearing on the work: “Life: slow and painful death”. But, it is life nonetheless, life after all.
What is the strategy of life that these works propose? It is a simple but effective one. When the policeman says, “Hey, you there!” Dathini does not turn to look. But neither does he run. In this scene of power where sensibilities are hardened, Dathini offers us a history of the present as a history of emotions and affect.
The story of emotions is lodged in the newspaper headlines that have become all too familiar in our post-apartheid times. Dathini sets out to interrupt these familiar media representations. Rather, that resort to over-worked and tired processes of seeking blame, these works provoke our senses to re-imagine what the post-apartheid can be. The technique that offers us such a unique view rests on the way emotions cut through the simple binaries that constitute our post-apartheid present; these are emotions that cut through law and violence, life and death, art and politics, and technology and the human. In each instance, empathy and sadness converge to take us beyond the limits of our post-apartheid and post-colonial language.
When Dathini deals with violence, he does so in a way that does not limit us to the terms of the law. The work of art, he shows, can and must intervene to show what lies beyond the purview of its apparatus. It is not surprising that these works are presented to us as unframed, even rough around the edges, as if their meaning overflows the presumed frames.
When Dathini deals with life and death, he asks for a history that teaches us not how we die, but how we live. When he deals with art and politics, he works to redistribute the sensible so that we can discern the lines of possibility in the post-apartheid. When Dathini deals with technology and the human he invites to consider how the hand works to craft new conditions for thinking.
Dathini’s works are larger than life, not in any simple sense. These are large works about even larger themes. We are bound to speak about them for many years to come, in part because we are compelled to and because they will prove to be inescapable in a history of the present. Thank you Dathini for the gift of these works; for your provocations and for placing before us the possibility of rethinking the relationship between art and politics.
Spending time in this exhibition over the past two days as it was being prepared for tonight’s opening, I could not help thinking about those who have given us their artwork to mentor us about life. I thought of Madi Phala, and Billy Mandindi. They would look proudly upon these works as mentors. In much the same way, Dathini’s art also serves as an act of mentorship, and we are grateful to receive the gift. If there is a work that inspires thought about life, and that serves to remind us that this is the work of life, it is the work titled Breathe. I want to ask Dathini to continue to breathe life into our post-apartheid present.