Power for art’s sake

South African painter Carla Busuttil has caught Charles Saatchi’s eye among others.

South Africans overall, except the politicians that is, seem to have a taste for satire. In fact, one could argue that it is a cornerstone of the beloved country’s particular brand of humour or one can argue that by merely relating real events, it’s satire enough.

Carla Busuttil’s paintings find a middle ground by capturing the essence and form of a subject, rather than the details and context. As such, the 29-year-old South African has painted a string of leaders from South Africa and the world, hardly any of them even faintly recognisable. Verging on absolute abstraction, it is mesmerising how just a couple of Busuttil’s impasto brushstrokes can still capture such a strong satirical sense.

The keyword for Busuttil is “power” and this trait is universal across all leaders all across the world. Having grown up in South Africa she is aware that this fascination may have been born here, but insists that it now extends further.

Now based in Berlin, Busuttil initially studied fine art at Wits, before going on to complete a post-graduate diploma at the Royal Academy of Art (RAA). Her second solo exhibition, Rug & Gut & Gum, showed at the Josh Lilley Gallery in London recently. In 2009, she showed Tuxed Fucks at the Gimpel Fils Gallery in London. Her entire 2008 RAA graduate exhibition of 13 paintings were bought by Charles Saatchi – the type of tale that has kick-started many a young artist’s career.

How did you come to settle on painting as your artistic medium?

During my studies I experimented with a number of media – film, sculpture and installation. However, I always came back to painting as it feels like my most natural fit. Nonetheless, I would not rule out working in other media in the future.

What was the transition from Wits to the Royal Academy of Art like?

At Wits, most of our lecturers had made their names creating art during the Apartheid era. Due to the tumultuous recent history of the country, politics and the transition of society were understandably a central theme. I found during my studies at the Royal Academy that there was a general feeling of suspicion towards work that was overtly political. I think that when comparing the recent histories of both countries, the differences in political urgency or participation are quite understandable. Anyway, this change in attitude helped me challenge the way I think about the subjects I tackle.

There are always questions of the diaspora when it comes to African artists living and working outside of their home country. How do you understand your work in relation to other South African art? Are you still part of the South African art community?

I think that, as with many other facets of life, the art world is becoming increasingly global. This means that location becomes less important in both the generation of and appreciation of art. Having said that, I still feel a part of the South African community. I am still in touch with many of my old lecturers and classmates. I am also working on having a show in South Africa in the not too distant future.

What is it like to get the Charles Saatchi stamp of approval? Does it bring a large amount of pressure too?

He is one of the world’s most influential collectors, and is genuinely obsessed with viewing art and discovering new artists. So, I am glad my work caught his eye. Ultimately, however, he is one man – so I don’t feel any particular pressure due to him appreciating what I do.

You have been, fairly or unfairly, compared to Ernst Kirchner, Edvard Munch, Robert Hodgins and Stella Vine, among others. How would you describe your work to someone who’s never seen it?

I use images of historical events and persons from different periods of history. These are merged to create something that borders on the figurative and abstract. The point of these works is to try capture and highlight the essence or feeling of the subject matter at hand. I also try and stay faithful to the attraction I initially had to the original source material. My aim is to leave the paintings as raw as possible, to keep the lines and strokes fresh and the movements of the brush exposed so as to retain the energy inherent in the making of the work. The downfall and/or triumph for me is knowing when to stop painting, as well as recognising what works and what doesn’t.

Where does your fascination with power and authority stem from?

I would be guessing if I attributed it to anything specific. I always like to feel in touch with what is happening in the world and the history that has shaped it. I read as broadly as possible and am constantly challenging my own view of the world. Basically, trying to understand humans – why we live the way we live and do the things we do. Power and authority certainly are a part of that but I think my fascination is broader. My work draws from many different periods and from many different fields. That is jumbled up and filtered through my painting style to create the final works. There is no intentional message in the work.

Despite your fascination with famous, powerful, authoritative people, your work entails a tension between art-for-art’s-sake and political awareness. How do you create this tension?

My work is always about art first. Any content, political or otherwise, is secondary. I do think that a sense of something happening or something being said does help an image to be more compelling. However, it should never be obvious. Most of my recent work does not deal with specific known individuals.

How does your South African upbringing feed your interest in the history of violence, corruption and the rule of law?

When considering subject matter, I always draw on my own experiences of growing up in South Africa. It was a strange place to live. I can’t quite get my head around how the society I lived in managed to evolve in the way it did.  Somehow, my family and I, like all people, became voluntary or involuntary players in the grand twisted social experiment. I am always using this as a reference point when examining other histories from other areas of the world; there are so many shared similarities and examples with what happened in South Africa, when we are talking about the abuse and manipulation of power. The thing that fascinates me is the common thread in human nature that creates conditions for corrupting behaviour. Literature has been good at capturing this elusive notion (think of books like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm or 1984). Painting is clearly a clumsy medium for investigating such ideas, but hopefully the thought process comes across in my work.

What is the significance of humour in depicting power and violence?

I think that the most difficult thing to achieve is to create humour out of “serious issues”. It is much easier to be dogmatic or moralist. With powerful figures, humour reduces them to an accessible level. Done well, humour can reveal the absurdity inherent in our dotage of the “great”. Within my own work, humour is sometimes present, reflecting my own take on a person or event. However, the most important reaction for me is an emotional one. Humour is simply an occasional by-product of that process.

How would you compare your work to that of Zapiro?

I think Zapiro aims to provide political commentary on recent events through humour. And he is very good at it. My job, however, is rather different. I seek to create art that lives outside of the time or context. The images should be able to stand up without context or knowledge. I am not seeking to create commentary, but making art that is ambiguous and emotive rather than current and literal.

Watch the Talk with Jonathan Shapiro