Produced by the Cape Town-based artist in 2004, it is an exact mirror image of Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498-99) located in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. In contrast to Michelangelo’s work, which was sculpted in Carrara marble, Botha’s version is made from resin and mielie (maize) meal – a staple food for millions of people in South Africa. Because the original work of art is so recognisable, the audience may not even be aware of the reversal of the image at first.
On closer inspection, however, Botha’s unusual artistic material is revealed and areas of high finish are contrasted with those left roughened. The evocative expression of anguish, sorrow and tenderness in this pose is also familiar, but has a particular resonance with Sam Nzima’s iconic image from the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In Nzima’s photograph, the mortally wounded 13-year-old Hector Pieterson is being carried in search of help in the arms of another student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, accompanied by Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette.
By appropriating the power of a canonical Western work of art, Botha complicates our memory and understanding, and prompts viewers to reconsider unquestioned beliefs.
The Mieliepap Pietá is part of the Spier Art Collection, one of the largest collections of contemporary South African art in the country. The sculpture was exhibited in the Museum for African Art’s “Personal Affects” at the Cathedral of St John the Divine (New York City) from September 2004 to January 2005, in Stevenson Gallery’s “Both, and” show from June to August 2018 and was featured in the Norval Foundation’s “Heliostat: Wim Botha” from September 2018 to January 2019.
After several years in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral, the Mieliepap Pietá has found a new home at Spier in The Manor House’s Contemplation Room, which is open daily for viewing.
Art, like food and wine, is best shared, which is why Spier is such an enthusiastic supporter of African artists and their creations. Housing one of the largest contemporary art collections in the country, Spier believes in the power of the visual arts to teach and inspire, encouraging us all to engage openly with our world and each other. With such a thriving local artistic community and rich cultural heritage, Spier is excited about the future of South African art.