Review: Mr. Brainwash Exhibition

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I was never much of a Royalist, but that was before I discovered that Queen Elizabeth is an outrageously talented graffiti artist. The world has Mr. Brainwash to thank for this information as he has famously portrayed her engaged in a flamboyant act of vandalism with a bucket of luminous pink paint.

This image and others like it were controversially displayed at the Old Sorting Office in Bloomsbury, London last year and now Mr. Brainwash’s provocative and popular art has found its way into the thriving artistic atmosphere of South Africa’s Mother City.

There is surely no better place for his work to be exhibited than the edgy, hip 34 Fine Art Gallery in Woodstock, Cape Town. The venue is well-known as catering for serious art-collectors and the gallery’s professional staff are always on hand to give detailed background to each image. This 2013 exhibition is small and intimate but includes celebrated pieces such as Mr. Brainwash’s Kate Moss and his Andy Warhol-inspired portraits of Madonna.

34 Fine Art’s exhibition is a thrilling adventure and the presentation of Mr. Brainwash’s visuals defies any neat categorisation. Even though each picture is numbered, they are not always presented sequentially. To attempt to view the images in consecutive order results in zig-zagging backwards and forwards across the room, often to dizzying effect.

After pirouetting the length of the floor, I ultimately decided to fend off motion sickness and spurn mathematical notions of organisation. It became intensely satisfying to move impulsively between different works and try to make the connections between each piece. Whilst in some ways a practical decision, this also reinforced Mr. Brainwash’s own message that individuals should respond intuitively to their own instincts, dreams and visions. As he himself said “I’m not here to just sell some art. I’m here to do something that helps people open their heart and make them say to themselves, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to become an artist….’”

One picture that speaks to the South African context is that of Nelson Mandela as a “Love Painter”. In this image of the leader as an artist, Mandela’s outstretched arm grips a brush that drips with blue paint. Above his head he has painted the word, “Love” in courageous capital letters. The picture acutely compares the act of political reconciliation to pop-art’s unifying work of montage and bricolage.

The image is uplifting but is not devoid of radical humour. The cartoon figures of Batman and Mickey Mouse lurk behind the President, highlighting the fact that no political leader can be placed on a pedestal. From Mr. Brainwash’s perspective, all public figures must take their place amidst a cosmopolitan and sometimes ridiculous postmodern world.

Mr. Brainwash’s exhibition in Woodstock represents Mandela as an imaginative force and is filled with many other images of artists involved in the process of creation. Figures as diverse as apes, children, actors and scientists brandish placards and spray-cans in order to display powerful slogans such as “Follow your Dreams” and “Love is the Answer”, in keeping with Mr. Brainwash’s mantra that art is irrevocably public and belongs to everyone.

Whilst many facets of Mr. Brainwash’s biography remain in shadow, one might well look towards the 34 Fine Art exhibition for clues as to his identity. At the Woodstock exhibition, the figure of the artist is ubiquitous but is presented in a startling array of guises. Mr. Brainwash illustrates creative genius at work and this becomes a process of self-portraiture. The way in which graffiti artists can be anyone from Albert Einstein to Charlie Chaplin to the Queen herself is surely a mirror of the Banksy collaborator’s own ability to mutate and shift shape. If a personality as evasive as Mr. Brainwash may be said to have an essence, it is perhaps to be sought in the fearless and inspired protagonists on display in this Woodstock exhibition.

By Alice Meyer

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