Yiull Damaso, After the Death Threats
His painting of SA's political leaders gathered over Madiba's corpse sparked expected controversy and gasps. We caught up with Yiull Damaso.
by Billy Rivers Posted: 2013/04/15
At 56 Buckingham Avenue, Craighall, you'll find a squat black studio. Parked just outside is a pretty distinct scooter. All glass and mirrors, it gives the impression of a disco ball with wheels. Much like its owner, Yiull Damaso, it is one of a kind.
Yiull is a 45-year old Zimbabwean-born Portuguese Italian. Wolf-lean and darkly tanned, he looks and moves like a much younger man. But it is his thoughtful speech that gives him away - that and his moustache. Thick, long, black, and curling at the edges, this Salvador Dali-inspired piece of facial hair is a strong indication of who he is: an artist, respected and controversial within his world.
In 2010 Yiull began work on what has now become a highly contentious oil on canvas titled 'The Night Watch'. In it various prominent South African political leaders, from Zille to Mbeki, are arranged around the corpse of Nelson Mandela. Nkosi Johnson dissects his arm, displaying the inner workings of the man as if to say, according to Yuill, 'Yes, he is a great man. But he is just a man'.
The painting bears intentional similarities to Rembrandt's 'Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp'. Although the title is another nod to Rembrandt's own 'The Night Watch', Yuill has his own reasons for naming it such. 'The title of the painting, for me, is as important as the idea behind the painting,' he says. 'In calling it "The Night Watch" I wanted to ask who is watching this machine that is South Africa? While you and I sit here talking, this machine is busy running, and somebody is running it. The people who are running it are represented by the people I chose to put in the painting.'
There are many ideas and concepts at play, right down to the expressions of the politicians - some shifty, some curious, and some worried. It is, essentially, high art - and a shame that so many seemed to miss much of what the work said. 'What threw people off was to see Nelson Mandela dead, they just couldn't see past that.' The painting was only exhibited for five days, causing such an uproar that the gallery folded under public pressure and removed it. Yiull was at the centre of a storm of media and public focus, even receiving death threats live on air during a 702 radio interview.
Since then Yiull and 'The Night Watch' have been featured in two documentaries, one local and one international. These days Yiull has moved on to painting in rust. This entails using iron filings and copper powder on canvas and then rusting them with acid. 'I started with the rust to try take control away from myself.' he says. 'By washing with the acid it either rusts beneficial to the image, or not.'
He is currently working on a series of flags in this medium. Essentially, he is painting in decay. 'People are prepared to die for a piece of cloth and I think it's the most insane idea. I don't understand it.' He ties this into our own country and our own flag, which also features in the series. 'When you look at South Africa, it's a beautiful country, we have a lot going for us, but when you look on a street level there is a lot of decay and festering sores that make it up.'
Although not finished, this series of flags is on display at Auto & General in Johannesburg.
See more of Yiull's work here www.yiull.com