Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wim Botha's Mieliepap Pieta

Wim Botha, Mieliepap Pieta, 2004

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-1499
Hector Pieterson photographed by Sam Nzima, 1976

Botha was born in South Africa and received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pretoria. He has displayed a technical virtuosity that has enabled him to create some astonishing sculptural artworks. In Mieliepap Pietá, Botha re-created a mirrored replica of one of the best-known works of Christian religious sculpture by Michelangelo. What sets Botha’s Mieliepap Pietá apart from Michelangelo’s original is that it is sculpted out of maize meal, a staple of many South Africans’ diets.  
The original Pietá has amassed so much importance that it has become an ideology in itself: the ideology of “good art." It is almost unchallenged in the value that’s ascribed to it. It is, of course, carved out of marble which is reserved for religious or elite applications. However, in essence its only practical purpose is one of decoration. Through re-creating Michelangelo’s Pietá in maize meal, Botha invites the viewer to question the meaning behind this loaded icon. Maize meal is very cheap to purchase but is incredibly valuable as it meets the dietary needs of millions of people every day. As far as meeting the everyday needs of the masses, marble is insignificant as well as a non-essential luxury.  
One questions whether Botha is portraying religion as a form of nourishment through the use of maize meal in the appropriated sculpture or is he alluding to how the expensive use of marble in creating artworks that are only accessible to the elite in society become ineffective in providing sustenance to the majority of ordinary people; both spiritually and physically.
By choosing a material such as mieliepap, Botha also draws parallels to our complex South African history. In Michelangelo’s Pietá, Mary is holding the lifeless body of her son, Jesus, after the crucifiction. This imagery echoes the iconic South African photograph of Hector Pieterson being carried away during the Soweto uprising. When considered in the light of one another, Mieliepap Pietá begins to shed its specific religious context and becomes instead a universal icon for tragic human experiences. Mary’s son’s death represents a far greater cause; as did Hector Pieterson’s. These tragic and unjust deaths were both motivators in spurring change. It is thought that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and as a result, we have eternal life. After Hector Pieterson’s death in 1976, the apartheid system was finally dismantled in 1994. The image of his death is forever a symbol of what the brutal violence of the apartheid system can cause.


Mackenzie. "Apt Appropriation: Contemporary African Artists’ Utilization of Canonical Western Art." 2008