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The Most Offensive Painting Ever Made

Posted By Alix McKenna On July 15, 2010 @ 10:07 am In Africa,After Image,Art | 2 Comments

The Anatomy Lesson by Yiull Damaso
[Photograph: Lisa Skinner/Mail/Guardian, Image source: The Guardian [1]]

Yiull Damaso has achieved a true artistic milestone. He has created what is quite possibly the most offensive image ever made. The BBC reports that the forty-one year old South African artist is completing a large painting depicting former South African president and Nobel Laureate, Nelson Mandela as a corpse in the process of being dissected. Observing this process is a group of South African leaders from the past and present. The completed piece will be displayed in the Hyde Park shopping center in Johannesburg. Not surprisingly, the African National Congress has already criticized the piece, saying that it insults Mr. Mandela’s dignity.

Perhaps we could forgive the artist if he was using this offensive imagery to make an important political statement.  If Damaso was trying say that Mandela was somehow mistreated, or that ANC politicians had somehow exploited Mandela’s revered stature for propaganda purposes, perhaps the painting might make more sense. But Damaso himself has stated that that his piece is not about politics, but about Mandela’s mortality. “Nelson Mandela is a great man,” he told BBC, “but he’s just a man… The eventually passing of Mr. Mandela is something that we will have to face, as individuals, as a nation.” Okay, but why now?  Mandela has not passed away, so the idea of showing his half naked body on a dissecting table while the flesh of his left arm is being cut away is just creepy, arbitrary and disrespectful.

Weirder still is Damaso’s decision to base his piece on Rembrandt’s painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Damaso even dresses the dissection’s observers, who include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and President Jacob Zuma, in seventeenth century Dutch outfits.

Not only is Damaso’s decision to parody Rembrandt random and visually confusing, it ignores the context of the earlier image. In Damaso’s painting, Mandela’s figure occupies the place of Aris Kindt, the man being dissected in Rembrandt’s painting. Kindt was an armed robber, who was executed for his crime before being brought to the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the city’s anatomist, was only allowed to work from the corpses of executed criminals. Damaso has not only killed of the father of his nation, he metaphorically stuck him in the position of a common low-life.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt

Damaso’s painting substitutes the image of anatomist Dr. Nicolaes Tulp for a portrait of the deceased Nkosi Johnson, an HIV positive child activist who succumbed to the disease at age 12. Johnson’s presence further complicates Damaso’s simple message that we are all mortal. Damaso told The Guardian, “Nkosi Johnson, the only one in the painting who’s no longer alive, is trying to show them that Mandela is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country.” Artists have been painting memento moris for hundreds of years, but while death may be inevitable, death from AIDS at the age of 12 is not. Using the figure of the young activist as a mere symbol of death is simplistic and exploitative. Nkosi Johnson was the keynote speaker at the 13th International AIDS Conference, where he closed with the words “Care for us and accept us – we are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else – don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same!”

Most of us share something else in common too.  We fear death and we don’t want a visual reminder that we or someone we revere will eventually pass away. Perhaps Damaso should have taken a lesson from Johnson’s kindness and considered how Mandela might have felt at being depicted as half-naked, dead and flayed and how his countrymen will feel upon seeing his sinister painting.


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[1] The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/09/nelson-mandela-painting-south-africa