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The “dead” Mandela painting and other disturbing images

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Oil on canvas. 1632 Rembrandt van Rijn. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Oil on canvas. 1632

To see an image of Yuill Damaso’s parody of this painting click here

Images of victims of violence have become commonplace in the media. But two images, one portraying Nelson Mandela as a corpse, and another showing the body of an abandoned infant have disturbed many viewers, for different reasons.

The artwork showing the ‘dead Mandela’, by Johannesburg artist Yiull Damaso is a parody of a well-known work by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt’s 17th century work, showing Dr Tulp conducting an anatomy lesson is typical of group portrats commissioned by the Dutch guilds at that time. Anatomy lessons or were often performed in public, before a large audience, and the corpses used for dissection were generally those of executed criminals.

Damaso’s work shows Mandela as a corpse, the subject of the dissection, Aids orphan and activist, the late Nksoi Johnson as the surgeon, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and politicians FW de Klerk, Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trevor manuel, Helen Zille and Thabo Mbeki as the students or spectators.

Attention was drawn to the work on show in an open public space in at an up-market Johannesburg shopping centre by an unamed caller who indicated that the Mandela family were ‘very upset by the painting’.

The ANC issued a statement condemning the painting in the ‘strongest possible terms’ saying that it is ‘in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to the values of our society’.

The shopping centre manager defended the work on the grounds that “we support freedom of expression and art”. In an interview with the Saturday Star, the artist explained that he meant no disrespect and claimed that his painting “shows Mandela’s flesh and bones, which shows that he was a man, just like every one of us. He achieved great things by working hard, and he has so much influence on the country and the world, but the painting shows that he is just an ordinary man.”

In the end everything is about context. The ANC statement, after condemning the painting explains that, “in African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person” and that it violates Mandela’s dignity by ‘stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers’. Parodies can be witty and insightful, but only if they’re used in a culturally appropriate context. If not, they candemeaning and hurtful or downright insulting. Damaso drew on the historical archive for inspiration without considering the context in which the original work was made and seen, or the context in which the contemporary image would be viewed.


Mandela ‘autopsy’ just not on
Dead Mandela Painting: ANC appalled
Dead Mandela Painting Sparks Outcry in South Africa

See see the image as it appeared in The Times click here

A second disturbing image, published ion the front-page of The Times, under the headline “baby burnt, dumped in field, shows the burnt body of an infant abandoned in what appears to be a heap of rubbish in Diepkloof Soweto. The report notes that Gauteng provincial hospitals treated 208 abandoned babies in 2007 and 273 in 2008 and concludes by quoting a community member, “How do you burn a child, even if it is dead? Why not use a hospital to abort if you don’t want the child, or give the child to someone who wants to have children but can’t? No sane adult would do this.”

The photograph was accompanied by a sober Editorial Comment from Phylica Oppelt, saying “this is a horrific image by anyone’s standards” and noting that “we deliberated carefully about publishing it on the front page of this newspaper. Will you our readers, think it gratuitous, or will you find the abandonment of an innocent as outrageous and horrifying as we did? ... we want to honour this baby girl’s life – to shout out that she did not deserve to be dumped like a piece of litter. This child’s death should make is ask about the society we want to inhabit, the society we want to create for our children. The dumping of a child – irrespective of the cirecumstances – must make us ask what value we attach to that most wonderful Constitution of ours.”

The publication of this image drew heated criticism. One reader asked “where is your respect for hman life and for decency? Does your need (greed) for sensationalism top your sense of morality?” Others expressed their shock about the nature of the images or commented that the abandonment was symptomatic of the social problems caused by poverty.

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) an agency that aims to promote the development of a free, fair, ethical and critical media culture in South Africa and the rest of the continent, issued a statement condemning The Times’ usage of the image, and saying that their decision to publish an editorial comment alongside the image indicated their acknowledgement of the shocking and violent nature of the image.  Dismissing The Times’ justification for using the image on the grounds that the corcumstances of the apparent abandonemnt had not been determined, the MMA said that, The Times failed in its obligation to ‘minimise harm’ and ‘ignored the emotional distress that the image may cause to children or ro adults who have experienced related trauma’. The MMA statemends by saying that it contends that The Times made the wrong decison to publish the photograph asking “if there is a risk that the image represents something other than what the paper suggests, how can The Times justify using it?. It cannot”.

The image is disturbing, there’s no getting away from that. While one may applaud the The Times for wanting to draw attention to the issue of abandoned children, because it is, for many an unthinkeable act, one needs to ask whether the end justifies the means. The infant’s right to dignity have been violated by the person who abandoned her. Why should it be violated again, even in the service of a good cause? What is at stake here, as with the Mandela painting is the service to which images from the archive are put. 

A last thought. The archive is home to images of victims of all sorts of unimaginably violent acts. Will bringing these out and parading them in the public domain stem the violence or, might it simply inure us to it? Or, will the limits of what is acceptable and what is not, be pushed to make a point?

Baby burned, dumped in field
Dead baby pic in ‘The Times’, not okay says MMA

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