An Organisational History Painting: Challenges and Strategies

“Fiction is the only source of truth – the rest is fiction”: 

The use of fictionalisation and mild caricature in an organisational history painting 

In 2017 I was commissioned by the Durban-based Project Preparation Trust (PPT) to produce a ‘history painting’ commemorating the 25th anniversary of this marvelous developmental organisation. The brief required that the painting should document the PPT’s key activities and achievements, the politicial and geographic context in which its work took place, as well as including 22 recognisable in situ portraits of its staff members and trustees. 

The original acrylic painting now hangs in the PPT boardroom in Durban. Twenty-two copies, inkjet printed on 280gsm archival quality paper and framed, were given to the staff members and trustees of PPT, each of whom is represented in the painting.  A key card, in the form of a numbered outline drawing identifying the people in the painting, was attached to the back of the reproductions and mounted alongside the original work. 

The Complexities of Representation

This is one of the most challenging commissions I have worked on. There were so many problems to solve. Not only did I have to get hold of good quality (recent) photos of each of the persons represented and turn these into mini portraits, I also had to produce images representing the PPT’s projects and its aims and objectives while providing a sense of the physical environment in which its work, which mainly involved the upgrading of informal settlements in Durban and elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal, took place. All in a single painting.

Location and Environment

I had coined the aphorism “fiction is the only source of truth – the rest is fiction” during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s when I was producing historical comics and illustrated publications commissioned by NGOs involved in South Africa’s sociopolitical transition. 

Since there was no place in Durban where an informal settlement upgrading project could be seen in the context of its overall geographical position, I resorted to the aphorism, turning for inspiration to the great grandfathers of narrative illustration, Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. 

Studying their compositions, I noticed how they managed to incorporate many scenes in a single painting by constructing fictional topographies in which a variety of separate locations could be incorporated at different levels, each providing the opportunity to stage a mini-narrative.

To do that I had to invent a big series of hills overlooking the city from the southeast. This enabled me to include modern, informal and township environments at various stages of development, as well as to go in close and present narrative scenes which each tell their own story. These include a scene where teenage girls on their way home from school are accosted by ‘tsotsis’, an ECD centre with children at play, a community vegetable gardening project, a ‘shisa nyama’ braaivleis area, a spaza shop, and an informal sector workshop manufacturing burglar guards. 

On different levels in the background, I was able to show an undeveloped settlement that has none of these facilities, as well as formal RDP township housing, with the layout of the formal city and coastline in the distance. 

Then, using diagrams and photos provided by the client, I presented an idea of what the process of settlement upgrading involved, including the widening of walkways and the provision of facilities such as container toilets and marketplace structures. 

But there were still important aspects of PPT’s work that needed to be emphasized, so I resorted to the monochromatic circular pictures suspended above, representing a township survey, a carpentry workshop, and facilities for children and the aged. 

Real Life Fictional People

But the most challenging part of the brief by far was an instruction in the commission document that “the painting will recognisably represent, in situ according to skills and contribution, 22 members of staff and trustees, past and present, as listed the Excel document provided by PPT. Prominence ratings of individual persons will be provided.” 

There was no way I could show all these people at work, so that’s how I came up with the idea of showing a fictional 25th anniversary party in a marquee in the foreground. Under the marquee are two posters showing the two key elements of the PPT programme of development – informal settlement upgrading and informal economy support – as well as In Memoriam portraits of three deceased members of the organisation. 

Since there was no way I could make ‘realistic’ portraits – I am, after all, a cartoonist – I opted for what I call ‘empathetic caricatures’.  This is perhaps the most important role that cartooning plays in the picture. An element of ‘fictionalisation’ always exists in caricature, no matter how mild. Here it is used to uplift the mood of the painting, whilst conveying an empathetic and recognisable representation of the featured individuals. To meet the client’s requirements in terms of ‘prominence ratings’, I arranged them in ways that their roles and importance in the organization could be identified: by their dress, where they were standing, what they were holding, who they were talking to or what they were pointing at. 

Lastly, I also included several fictional characters in the crowd: the local baker who provided the food, a clergyman, a radical feminist, an ECD schoolteacher, parents and kids, activists from a locally active social movement, as well as representatives of business and local government. And lastly, as was often done by history painters in the days of Bruegel and Bosch and those who followed them, I added a portrait of the artist in the bottom right hand corner.