Mickey Mouse, the iconic big-eared, white gloved animation character and an eminent symbol in pop culture history, will soon commemorate his 90thbirthday on 18 November 2018. Officially making his debut in 1928, Mickey has been a longstanding cartoon in the movie reel of our childhood memories for several generations through which we’ve witnessed a gradual aesthetic makeover. With much focus placed on this milestone globally, we are specifically interested in South Africa’s contribution to the Mickey the True Original exhibition. 10 local visionaries were called upon to grace us with their artistic flare through visually communicating and taking inspiration from South African culture and history. These gifted artists were instructed to decorate a blank 6-foot statue of Mickey Mouse and in doing so, a clear understanding of what animation and South African culture meant to these artists was achieved.
In an effort to learn more about the constructs behind the portrayal of the classic character, we interviewed the highly skilled Lee Scott Hempson about her journey with the timeless cartoon as well as her personal interpretation of the statue:
1. What did Mickey Mouse mean to you growing up?
Mickey Mouse as a child meant the thrill of a dark cool movie house on a Saturday afternoon hosting a cacophony of kids climbing over the seats, running down the aisles all eager to sit with friends and throw food at each other. Seriously, there were no grown-ups at the movie house on a Saturday afternoon (the only one for about 500 miles around in a small hot and dusty farming community); it was heaven. We waited eagerly for the cartoons to start and Mickey Mouse and his host of Disney pals were there to entertain us before the feature film. Mickey evokes in me a nostalgia of well-being and youthful delight at the world.
2. What do you think of the overall concept of the local campaign for the anniversary?
I think the concept around the campaign of re-interpreting Mickey from an African perspective and especially a South African one is fantastic. Re-invention is always a good idea. It is associated with change and adaptation, two important attributes in a new era.
The experience also allowed a group of very diverse artists to interpret his character in fresh and innovative ways and because we worked together at the Art Eye Gallery studios, got to know each other and face the challenge of taking a two dimensional representation of this iconographic character to the three dimensional, which was no easy task.
3. What was the inspiration behind your creative portrayal of Mickey Mouse?
I see Mickey as a storyteller and despite his critics, this humble character’s role is one of a well- meaning, curious, generous, humble with good intentions character who a portrays a genuine willingness to help his fellow characters. His stories are worldwide, informative and comical. I think South Africans have similar attributes; friendliness, warm smiles, a culture of giving and sharing attributed to the philosophy of Ubuntu and a love of storytelling. I thought, what better way is there to carry on this legacy, than to combine emblematic Mickey with the strong traditions of African storytelling, and in particular, South African ones?
In keeping with the theme of storytelling, I drew my inspiration from the ‘conversational’ Dutch Wax cloths and our local Shweshwe worn by many of our multi-cultural South Africans. These fabrics, which have inherently become associated with African culture, have, amidst the bustle of pattern and colour, images or motifs imbued with national and cultural significance, ranging from everyday items such as fans, cell phones, handbags and birds to national leaders. These textile prints imbued with meaning and cultural significance by many, (hence the term ‘conversational cloths’) tell stories representative of the everyday, from love to well-being, wealth and good fortune.
It is this ‘everyday-ness’ that I wanted to explore as a form of visual storytelling. I imagined Mickey’s sculpture collaged with Shweshwe fabrics, stenciled and hand-painted with what I consider to be particularly South African iconographic motifs and the word ‘hello’ in all our languages. The motifs are some of the kinds of positive images associated with South Africa. They ranged from chickens, TV’s, radios, mielies, rhinos, catapults, rugby balls and a soccer ball, to a proud lion and iconic Afro-comb. Other symbolic motifs included a light bulb with the power fist symbol in it (because we are full of revolutionary good ideas), iconic ‘imbadada’ roller blades for our fashion creativity, and the sun as symbolic of our sunshine disposition.
4. How does your rendition of Mickey Mouse for his 90thBirthday represent your artistic aesthetic as a South African creative?
As a South African creative, I think the rendering of Mickey represents a facet of my art and design aesthetic. I am Fine Arts trained and have had the good fortune to work in a number of art and design programs over the years and currently teach Fashion and Textile design students at the Durban University of Technology. Working with fashion, and design creatives definitely rubs off and has inspired my playful approach to the portrayal of 90-year-old Mickey.
5. In your opinion, how has Mickey Mousecontributedto the animation industry and what makes his character a pop culture symbol?
All people, not only children, love stories and I believe this friendly, willing, sometimes bumbling chap, (Mickey, that is) with his genuinely cheerful disposition is characteristic of an industry that is meant to entertain and at the same time educate. Mickey’s character shows adaptability and open-mindedness and these factors along with our African creative vision will hold him in good stead as a re-invented (or interpreted) 90-year-old. I think this opportunity for re-invention, makes Mickey more than a western interpretation of popular culture and places him firmly in the role of an Afro-futuristic Icon. He is Afro-Pop through and through.