Print of the Month May 2022 – Diane Victor’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’

Text by Christa Swanepoel 

Welcome back to Print of the Month! For this feature we have decided to take a look back at some of our previous collaborations from years past. Choosing a single print from our history is not an easy task, as the David Krut Workshop (DKW) has collaborated with over a hundred artists since its establishment in 2002! For the month of May we have chosen The Emperor’s New Residence by long-time collaborating artist Diane Victor. 

The Emperor’s New Residence, 2014 

Drypoint etching 

Edition of 30 

38.8 x 48.6 cm 

Created in collaboration with DKW in 2014, The Emperor’s New Residence is part of an unfinished series informally known as “The Fairytale Series”. Imagined as a series of drypoint etchings, the subject matter is inspired by the classic fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The Emperor’s New Residence was editioned by Master Printers Jillian Ross and Kim-Lee Loggenberg, and can be read as a darkly satirical response to the controversy surrounding former President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead at Nkandla during the year of 2014. 

Diane Victor is one of South Africa’s most prominent and recognizable contemporary artists, renowned for her masterful draughtsmanship and printmaking. Her work typically deals with difficult, confronting, and often uncomfortable subject matter, usually covering different aspects of social and political life in contemporary South Africa. She boldly challenges controversial issues such as corruption, unequal power distribution, violence and social injustices, by skillfully weaving together provocative scenes laden with affective details and layered symbolism. 

The Emperor’s New Residence references Hans Christian Andersen’s well-known literary story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. This humorous yet cautionary tale of hubris and greed warns children and adults alike not to let pride or fear prevent one from calling attention to the truth. 

Diane Victor first collaborated with DKW in 2008. Here she is seen working on The Emperor’s New Residence in the DK Workshop in 2014. The print was editioned by Master Printers Jillian Ross and Kim-Lee Loggenberg.

The image consists of two separate planes. The foreground, or the Illusion, is the plane that the viewer is confronted with first. A male figure resembling former President Jacob Zuma can be seen standing in front of a mirror. He is completely naked apart from the gilded crown on his head and the leopard skin brassard around his arm. A woman is holding up the mirror, smirking knowingly at the viewer. Behind the male figure is an ornate throne. The second plane, or the Truth, can be seen in the mirror’s reflection: President Zuma is stripped bare of his royal garb, which is replaced by a pair of glasses and donkey ears growing from his head. Behind him in the distance lies his private homestead in Nkandla. 

Upon closer inspection, the image is littered with details, each of which provides a clue to deciphering the narrative. Atop the crown – the ultimate symbol of power in Western history – is a miniature shield and spear reminiscent of the symbols used in the African National Congress (ANC) logo. The throne, another object considered in Western culture to signify power and royalty, contains many details worth a closer look. Although the concept of thrones comes from Europe, this thrown is ornately decorated with distinctly Southern African elements. Ornamental carvings recall the twisting horns of the majestic kudu, while the back of the chair is upholstered with leopard skin. In Zulu culture, the leopard is regarded as the king of all predators, and the wearing of leopard skin is reserved only for those of high stature. The King may wear as much leopard skin as he wants, and only the King may issue leopard skin as a reward for the bravest of warriors. 

The leopard skin band – which can also be interpreted as a military brassard – around the figure’s arm, thus symbolizes both royalty and military prowess. Other military symbolism can be read into the small bust atop the throne, which depicts a man wearing a military uniform. The armrests of the throne have hands, representing the people’s support. 

A closer look at the work provides many details, each of them placed intentionally, to provide further narrative.

By including colonial European symbols of royalty, such as the crown and the throne, Victor criticizes the hypocrisy apparent in the way tyrannical heads of state typically utilize these Eurocentric symbols. Objects such as thrones and crowns are culturally synonymous with European colonialism in Africa; Victor intentionally includes these objects in this image to highlight themes of unequal distribution of power and oppressive tyranny. 

The donkey ears, or “ass” ears, in the reflection echo old fables. The famous storyteller from ancient Greece, Aesop, often either depicts the donkey as a greedy trickster, attempting to trick other animals into believing he is greater than he actually is, or simply as a fool. The glasses he wears in the reflection give away his true age. The woman holding up the mirror makes eye contact with the viewer, including them in the scene. While this woman resembles the artist herself, Victor says that this woman could represent anyone who sees the truth. 

The inclusion of nudity opens up various avenues of interpretation. Most importantly, it ties in Hans Andersen’s original tale of the emperor who parades around in supposedly enchanted clothes, but appears nude to all who can see him. Victor’s exceptional draughtsmanship is showcased in the subtle changes between the figure in the foreground and the reflection. His back and shoulders are muscular and strong, his stance with his hand on his hip is almost arrogant, however, in the reflection his muscles seem withered and frail. 

His facial expression does not give away his thoughts. It is up to the viewer to interpret whether he is convinced by the truth being shown to him, or whether he will continue to cling to the illusion of grandeur. Victor skillfully appropriates various elements from the original fairytale to weave together a satirical scene, saturated with thought-provoking symbolism; the viewer is drawn in by her captivating aesthetic and enticed to decipher all of the meaning behind each of the carefully placed details. This print serves as a window allowing us to look back at recent South African history. Although its interpretation is subject to change as the political climate of the country continually evolves, and new controversies come and go, it gives us insight into the frustrations many South African citizens shared during the year of 2014. 

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