Against rage we find empathy, which, for Roman Krznaric, signals ‘a revolution of human relationships’. ‘Let’s get the meaning clear’, he adds, ‘empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feeling and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions’. Patricia Moore concurs. ‘I think empathy is an ever-evolving way of living as fully as possible, because it’s pushing your envelope and pushing you into new experiences that you might not expect or appreciate until you’re given the opportunity’.
It is precisely this opportunity which the collage artist, John Vusi Mfupi, has embraced. If Daniel Stompie Selibe has chosen to inhabit and express the paroxysm of pain, then Mfupi has chosen a counter-intuition – love. For it is compassion which we find everywhere in his work, a compassion which stems from the artist’s ability to step ‘imaginatively into the shoes of another person’. Not for him the ‘pandemic of narcissism’, not for him the abyss of the inchoate and gnashing Self.
‘An essential ingredient of human well-being’, empathy, Krznaric reiterates, ‘expands our mental landscapes so we have new perspectives on the world and our own lives’. It allows us to overcome the barriers of prejudice, authority, distance and denial, barriers which in an oppressive world might seem inflexible and absolute. And perhaps one of the most memorable literary instances of this overcoming is Martin Buber’s exemplary study, I and Thou, in which he reflects:
I imagine to myself what another man is at this very moment wishing, feeling, perceiving, thinking, and not as a detached content but in his very reality, that is, as a living process in this man … The inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in man’s relation to himself, but in the relation between one and the other, between men.
To understand Mfupi’s art is to understand this capacious compassion. However, empathy, here, should not only be understood as an individual act – a communion of solitaries – and but also as a collective social act, which is why Krznaric reminds us that, in this unforgiving and systemically cruel age, ‘it is time we rescued empathy from the realm of private life and unleashed its potential to transform public life as well. To do this, we need to grasp that empathy can be as much a collective phenomenon as an individual one’. We have encountered this viewpoint before, in Goethe, for whom ‘Man only knows himself in so far as he knows the world’.
It is this thinking, this realisation of the interconnection of the individual and the collective, which assumes priority as I sit before John Vusi Mfupi. He is a tall, broad-shouldered bejewelled man – an emperor of the heart, I wryly reflect, as the artist, breaking upon my idle rumination, says, ’I express daily happenings, which I give a positive spin’. The remark is telling, for it reveals the artist’s immersion in the everyday, and, more significantly, his decision, in the moment of creation, to uplift the prosaic vision of life. ‘Why destroy something for something you don’t have’, Mfupi cryptically adds. In unpacking this remark, we jointly agree that moments must be enshrined, compromise tempered, for negation benefits no one and nothing. To desire what one does not possess is to fall victim to a lack, because desire is treacherous. Better then to cherish beauty in the midst of difficulty, better to enshrine goodness.
This positivity is palpable everywhere – in the man seated before me, in the collection of newspaper clippings which celebrate the artist’s commitment to community work, and, most of all, in the vast collages hanging all about. For Mfupi’s collages are intoxicating in their simple beauty, their lightness and temperate warmth. And temperate is, I think, the most apt of words, for in Mfupi’s collages there is no great drama, no tempest, but rather a measured stillness. We see a couple of children taking a stroll, a group of passengers respectfully and steadily entering a Quantum taxi. For what captures the artist’s imagination and wills him on is a beneficent belief in composure.
That Mfupi regards himself ‘as a social artist and not a political artist’ further hones our understanding of the man. In emphasising the social over the political Mfupi seeks, thereby, to deflect his art from those who seek to appropriate it for prescriptive ideological reasons. For what matters far more to him is his ability, through collage, to ‘tell stories’. And it is all the more intriguing, in this regard, that Mfupi sees art ‘not as a career’ but as ‘as a lifestyle’ – as a way of life, a way of living.
But of course no one is immune to the corrosive demands of the political; no life, it seems, can be exempt from the pressure of forced allegiance. The personal is political, and so is the social. And yet Mfupi remains insistent that his art must refuse the clamour of political allegiance and the divisiveness it spurs. Which is why he impresses upon me – and himself – the need ‘to be positive about life and do something to sustain us as a nation’. Here I find that Mfupi could not be more clear regarding his position and agency. In refusing the political as a defining vantage point he, in effect, has deepened our understanding of what it means to be human. After Krznaric, Mfupi is reminding us that human betterment – the sustenance of a nation – requires that we tend to its people … gently, lovingly, and with the greatest of care.
One sees this approach vividly expressed in the artist’s work. Using acrylic glue and paper, primarily glossy magazines, as his medium – because he could not afford paint – Mfupi meticulously layers his surfaces. The works’ density, and yet its disarmingly languid and smooth affect, stems from a canny gift for colour. For what Mfupi creates is a pixelated and bejewelled finish. Technically, it is pointillism which immediately springs to mind, and, in truth, his works assume a companionable relationship to the works of George Seurat. Both artists possess a temperate vision, both seek to convey the quiet miracle of daily life, both understand that we exist not as solitaries but as elements in a chain of life that is human, natural, and cosmological. For when encountering a work by Mfupi it is nature – human and elemental – which is strikingly in evidence.
To achieve this effect takes countless hours shredding pages by hand – no mechanical tool intercepts this manual endeavour. Across the length and breadth of the artist’s studio we see his raw material, stacks of glossy magazines donated to him by individuals. This personal touch is typical, and perhaps essential, for Mfupi is not one to raid warehouses chock-full of magazines which have reached their expiry date. One senses, rather, a community’s involvement in his work, a community for whom he is a beloved son.
But if Mfupi was able to forego paint for glossy paper, it is because what mattered far more than medium was colour – and here the artist expresses a particular yen for blues and greens. Stippled, refracted, a grand complex of finely detailed mosaiced parts, Mfupi’s canvases made of paper reaffirm the preciousness within the ordinarily superfluous. El Anatsui’s vast cloaks made of metal bric-a-brac spring to mind, and, along with it the distinctively African capacity to reinvent waste materials. However, as with El Anatsui, we are not merely witness to a resourceful act of up-cycling but, more profoundly, we are witness to the transfiguration of a base material into something sacred and auratic. For what can never be refuted when looking at a work by Mfupi is the well-nigh divine sparkle it emits.
I use this sacred inference carefully, and, I think, deservedly, for the aura which Mfupi’s works emanate also stem from the artist’s very spirit – his realisation of the sacredness of human communion, his sense, forged through Ubuntu, that we are whom we are because of others, and his deeply personal realisation that selfhood is but the composite of a greater whole – some undivided divinity. His human beings, however, are not circumferenced with a holy light, but caught, always, in a finely stippled glow. For if Mfupi possesses one distinctive signature, it is the delicate rainfall of finely torn paper which gives his paper canvases their drizzled effect.
All importantly, there is nothing forced in a Mfupi work, neither semantically nor aesthetically. Rather, the works function as glowing ephemeral slivers of life. And yet, while seemingly ephemeral, they also possess a constancy, a timelessness, a profound grasp of the immortality which resides in each and every moment. Here I imagine the scrupulousness and patience of the artist’s labour, seated bowed as he pieces together a new world from the shredded remains of others. Alchemy too comes to mind, and with it the passage from one form or material reality to the next – a transmogrification.
Curiously, it is not the strategy of collage which, finally, impresses itself upon me but the actions of a painter applying wet on wet, for the final impact – the event that is the work – harbours the deepest and richest aspirations of a painter. This illusion, which militates against the flatness or calculated dimensionality of collage, is achieved by the layered film of acrylic glue with which the artist completes every stage of the work. It is in-and-through this pedestrian and affordable material that Mfupi achieves his resoundingly sacred effect.
Three vast works which I encountered in an opulent home in Blair Atholl on the outskirts of Johannesburg sum up this conclusion best. Located in a wet room which houses an indoor swimming pool and a Jacuzzi, the works are sealed in archival frames to protect them against humidity. Each work is roughly two meters by three, the palette dominated by glittering blues and greens. They are linked by a single defining motif – water – which also accounts for their setting. It is water, in the form of a stream which licks the ankles of a woman at centre of each work, water in the glittering drizzle which pixelates the works’ entirety, giving it its elemental sublimity. And it is the stateliness of the women at the works’ centre which provides the human dimension to this pastoral scene. Here, in this colossal triptych, we find the grandeur and the delicacy of Mfupi’s vision – a vision that could heal a nation.