Movement of Jah People, a collage of drawings that read from left to right.​
Movement of Jah People, a collage of drawings that read from left to right.​
Bond(age) explores the migrant's romantic/sexual relationships.
Bond(age) explores the migrant's romantic/sexual relationships.
Kwatabva Kwakure.
Kwatabva Kwakure.
Ronald Muchatuta’s new exhibition presents dozens of artworks that serve as maps of African migrants’ experiences in South Africa. They are no ordinary maps.

They do not provide a view from above, but a view from deep within. They do not portray only the physical terrain; they describe emotions, behaviour, social and personal experiences. They do not claim objectivity, but rather pride themselves on hyper-subjective perspective. They occupy not two dimensions, but countless layers. The narrator is not flying above the subject matter, he is diving deep below the surface.

“The artist’s duty is to give birth to conversations that are inside him or her,” says Muchatuta, “People describe my work as provocative, thought provoking and deep.”

After almost two decades of art-making he’s confident enough to draw impulsively, not having to lean on realistic depictions. He is confident enough to play; confident enough to risk being misunderstood; to challenge the viewer to imagine and interpret his maps/artworks as one wishes.

His new exhibition is spilling over his insides, vomiting all the voices in his head, all the pain in his guts. Abused sex workers, doormen turned drug dealers, arrogant Nigerians, perform in the journey. It takes the shape of a black and white exhibition.

One of the biggest works on display, and probably the strongest, can be read as a General Map of Entry to Migrants from the Continent. Under the title Movement of Jah People is a collage of white drawings on shiny black background. The work reads from left to right: Its movement begins with a door that opens by an anonymous hand, making way for surreal multiple faceless pairs of feet. “Africans always stand in line, like going to Home Affairs,” he says.

The movement of the feet continues outside the frame. Their journey continues beyond the map. It’s not a map of a destination; it’s a map of a beginning of a movement, without a point of arrival.

The first landmark is that of a road sign, with arrows pointing in all directions, supplemented by question marks instead of names of towns or townships. The question marks are asking: “Where are they going?” Muchatuta’s people, Jah People, are all going in the same direction, but the destination is unknown to them.

“When we come here - Somalis, Nigerians, Congolese, Zimbabweans - as African immigrants we take on our prescribed positions in the South African economy. Who is responsible to say to each group where they can exist economically? It feels like a planned distribution of forces. I’m investigating in the work who is responsible for that, and who benefits” Muchatuta says.

He adds playfulness to the heavy topic - patterns of squares and circles are floating in the background like a cheerful Shweshwe pattern; the black and white pallet is spiced up with offcuts of colourful drawings in blue and red. They refer to the Chinese bags associated with migration.

The work borrows its title from Bob Marley’s reggae hit, but the reference is deeper than a mere cliché. People of god are echoing also in The Great Exodus, which is associated with biblical migration of Jews and with the Great Trek. Ronald does not limit his research to black history. Instead he suggests a more universal angle.

“Human beings have always been migrating”, he says, “I’m trying to connect the past to the now. I see the similarities of what happened to different groups of people in different geographical and historical contexts. I see a link.”

The subject of women is dominant in another map - that of a migrant’s romantic/sexual relationships. Presented under the title Bond(age) it was inspired by a workshop on sex workers that he attended in Johannesburg earlier this year. Bare female bodies are drawn with snake/rope around them. Only one of them has a face. Icons of hearts with numbers represent the social media popularity indicator of “Likes”. Cupcakes and sharp-toothed jaws are floating in the background.

“As men, we are killing the emotions of women,” he says.

The creative atlas of roads includes a special map for an artist’s migration, based on Muchatuta’s experience of navigating the art-scene, under the Shona title Kwatabva Kwakure (We have come a long way). The highs and lows of the artist’s journey are depicted in what looks like hills and valleys, connected by a broken bridge.

An image of a coffin surfaces with birds flying out and the word “art” repeatedly written on its cover.

“It is symbolic to how you are always discouraged from doing art,” he says. “Once a friend made a joke, saying: ‘You will never be respected as an artist in South Africa because you are a f****** foreigner’, so I made a painting with that title.”

Muchatuta once said he drew since he wasn’t good at expressing himself in writing. His texts are of broken words and sentences, things he heard being told to him or to others. An example of his use of texts can be found on the outside wall of the AVA gallery. It is the one artwork that is not for sale - a mural that he drew on a black surface. The most striking feature is textual: “This is not Africa. This is Cape Town” is written again and again as a mantra.

“Cape Town is a white environment. There is always the issue of how you carry yourself when moving into a white space. You are sensitive of the place you walk in. “As a black man, when entering a restaurant I always have to figure out - should I be well dressed? Must I comb my hair? There are so many questions, because there is this stereotype, society puts so much weight on people of colour, in terms of presentation and roles”.

The Great Exodus, by Ronald Muchatuta, is on show at AVA gallery in Cape Town until September 23. He will do a walkabout of the exhibition on Saturday, 16 September.