Isaac Zavale’s visual ode to Joburg’s multiplicity

The artist’s first solo exhibition is an ode to and examination of Johannesburg’s central business district that skirts the glitz and normalises the grit and realities of the city.

At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, Lidudumalingani wrote about the search to find a new vocabulary for the city in this strange time, describing how despite “all the literature that has been written about Johannesburg, none reckons with the present times, the empty city, the city in isolation”. 

Writers who take their cue from the city usually have characters in motion in mind: commuting, working, jolling, spurred by an urgency that one can only truly know if familiar with the sensory overload of a busy intersection in the central business district (CBD). The smell of perfectly almost-burnt mielies. Pleading hand gestures from people begging and annoyed flicks of wrists from drivers trying to avoid an oily windscreen wash. Taxis hooting. The certainty of a TAPZ graffiti tag catching your eye and a glint from The Diamond on Diagonal Street blinding you unexpectedly. Only South Africans call traffic lights robots, but in central Joburg whole worlds await each one of them. Isaac Zavale’s debut exhibition, Joni Ya Milenge, on at the Kalashnikovv Gallery, is a visual ode to this multiplicity of the city.

Born in 1987 in Maputo, Mozambique, Zavale has lived in Johannesburg for most of his life so it comes as no surprise that city scenes dominate his work. His career traverses fine art, mural painting and printmaking. Zavale has been curating group shows and holding printmaking workshops since 2011; working with Minenkulu Ngoyi at Alphabet Zoo Collective, which Zavale co-founded in 2013; and running zine and printmaking projects. While he has taken part in many group exhibitions locally and internationally, Joni Ya Milenge is his first solo show. 

“I was sceptical of becoming a solo artist. I wanted at least 10 years working with others before exhibiting alone,” Zavale said. Those years have paid off in an attention to detail that belies the simplicity of his style.

Undated: Taxi Rank Queue I to V, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 400 x 400mm.

Zavale’s visual vocabulary of spaza shop-style signage and barbershop-style drawing was familiar, but visiting the artist’s studio at Transwerke in Hillbrow provided an opportunity to get a sense of what animates it. Loosely, Joni Ya Milenge means “Joburg of legs”, a nod to the bustle of the city in Shangaan slang. When people from Mozambique talk about South Africa, Joni (for Joburg) is used most commonly, says Zavale. It’s an urban imaginary that has come to represent the country as a whole. When talking about other cities or landscapes such as beaches or vineyards, Afrique du Sud replaces Joni. 

Writer Ivan Vladislavic was on the money when he called Johannesburg “a frontier city”. In conversation with the artist, he speaks about the city from his viewpoint as a naturalised resident with the sharp eye of an expat, moving seamlessly between Johannesburg and Maputo, as well as his take on what he describes as stereotypical CBD characters. 

Depicting Johannesburg

In Joni Ya Milenge, Zavale reinterprets street scenes that are particular to Johannesburg’s CBD. A detailed depiction of a row of just-washed cars includes a white Toyota Corolla with gleaming chrome mags parked below balconies with carpets draped over their rails. It is an intimately recognisable scene, evoking memories of mothers hanging carpets just like that, ready for their Saturday beating. 

The characters populating his work are as familiar as the colours, and this stylised familiarity makes it easy to forget the gallery setting. Seeing a swatch of green cloth and a metallic star synonymous with the Zion Christian Church in a gallery setting felt profoundly different to the work regularly shown in these spaces. Likewise, the incongruity of seeing it on a carved sculpture with the word SKHOKO, meaning awesome, as awesome the last little bit of delicious darkish pap at the bottom of the pot, on the plinth. 

Undated: Sister Sister, I & II, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 400 x 400mm.

As Zavale talks through his background, painting signs for spaza shops to make money for skateboards or designing stencils for murals, Lidudumalingani’s words again come to mind: “To invent a new vocabulary, to write of the new city, to contend with our economic differences, our domestic refuge and violence, our architectural realities, we can turn to literature, to make peace with the new world, or to find something else, the makings of a world we used to know.”

Influence and aspiration

Zavale’s work in Joni Ya Milenge shows that we can also turn to visual art to articulate Joburg, the city before and after Covid-19 emptied it, the one we want to know as well as the one we don’t. 

He describes Johannesburg as “the influencer” of the country and the continent. With that comes the baggage of poverty, unemployment and the trappings of material aspiration. “Like influencers who get free clothes and have all this power to educate and instead become an extension of the billboard? Johannesburg is a bit like that, a globalisation influencer.”

Undated: Bhuti Madlisa, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 1 000 x 700mm.

In the exhibition, his painting of Bhuti Madlisa is the only one to feature a face mask because he wanted the exhibition to speak to his experience of the pre-pandemic city. A man in an ostentatiously bright yellow suit dominates the work as a stereotypical “tenderpreneur”. Behind him is a red Mercedes G-Wagon, beside him a Louis Vuitton bag and a robot dog, symbols suggesting the glut of capitalist consumerism. 

Bold across the bottom are the words MADLISA AMABILLION. The piece is emblematic of the excess that has come to be associated with Joni, a sprawling city of multiple experiences and realities coexisting alongside each other. 

Zavale laments the way that “disadvantaged people are bombarded with excess and unrealistic materialist life goals”. The star of Bhuti Madlisa could easily be inspired by or feature in the music video for Big Zulu’s song Ama Million

24 September 2020: Joni Ya Milenge is Isaac Zavale’s first solo show after taking part in many group exhibitions locally and internationally, as he ‘wanted at least 10 years working with others before exhibiting alone’.

David Goldblatt has written about how difficult it is to bring together a vision or coherent bundle of ideas that say, “This is Joburg for me.” He aptly explains that “like the city itself, my thoughts and feelings about Joburg are fragmented”. 

The drama of the everyday

As a child, Zavale was told not to identify as Mozambican, to protect him from the risk of xenophobia that he now navigates as an adult, embracing both South African and Mozambican identities and perspectives. There is grace in the way he captures these everyday situations, despite the lurking danger that deeply permeates city life. 

There is something comforting about the familiarity of his artistic style, as if by forgoing hyperrealism, he puts some distance between the drama we know so well, such as the desperation and manipulation behind the proliferation of pamplets advertising loans and abortions. At the same time, it is jarring to see these things that are all too often taken for granted as given, acceptable features of city life. Zavale is emphatic when he says “access to the city was central to the fight against apartheid, but now Johnnesburg is many cities: you get the wealth of suburban whiteness and the dirt of the neglected of the inner city”. 

In this exhibition, he pays homage not to a forgotten or ignored Johannesburg. Rather, he skirts the glitz and normalises the grit. 

Joni stinks of pain, money, sex and drugs, to paraphrase Ayanda Ngema. But it is also resplendent with so much more. Italo Calvino writes that “cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears”. In Joni Ya Milenge, Zavale captures this by making manifest the dreams of the city, brought to life by those who live and love, and those who strive to survive here. 

Joni Ya Milenge is on show at the Kalashnikovv Gallery until 8 October. 

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