The recent uproar over Brett Murray’s painting of South African President Jacob Zuma The Spear in his latest exhibition Hail to the Thief II at Johannesburg’s posh Goodman Gallery is simultaneously uplifting and depressing. The painting, which shows a Bolshevik Zuma with his genitals protruding from his suit, has been met by a phenomenal media and political storm. Art critics, twitterati and cognoscenti are earnestly debating The Spear’s artistic merits, prompted largely by threats of legal action by the ANC and protests by members of the public to take it down or keep it up. And, in a rather Situationist turn of events, four people have appeared in court in relation to the defacing of both the gallery and the painting on Saturday.
As for Zuma, he is not amused. The polygamous President has expressed hurt and surprise at being portrayed as a “philanderer and womaniser” and has threatened to sue Murray. His unsurprisingly humourless reaction has been characterised by the special brand of vitriol he normally reserves for the political cartoonist Zapiro, who he sued in 2010 for ZAR5m.
It is certainly heartening that South Africans are once again demonstrating their robust engagement with political culture and debate. It is also intriguing and inspiring that this story has seen art liberated from the rarefied world of contemporary galleries such as The Goodman into the public domain. This has unfortunately been stimulated by a hostile response by the ANC, which is worryingly typical in its unhealthy penchant for censorship. South Africa’s ruling party recently tried to get a controversial Secrecy Bill pushed through parliament, and only backed down after sustained protest by South Africans against its undemocratic provisions.
The relish and self-righteousness with which it now calls for Murray’s head bodes ill for transparency and democracy, and for its relationship to art and culture. The ANC issued a press statement on May 17 saying:
“We have this morning instructed our lawyers to approach our courts to compel Brett Murray and Goodman Gallery to remove the portrait from display as well as from their website and destroy all printed promotional material. We have also detected that this distasteful and vulgar portrait of the President has been displayed on a weekend newspaper and its website, we again have instructed our lawyers to request the said newspaper to remove the portrait from their website.”
Censoring freedom of expression through art and literature brings the stench of despotism with it, and South Africans should be mindful of such historical moments and the implications for their leadership’s increasing encroachment on cultural production. They would also do well to remember the words of the exiled German poet Heinrich Heine: “where books are burned, in the end people will burn.”
It is also worrying that reaction to the painting has seized upon the sexualisation of Zuma, and although this is certainly a recurring theme of his political life, it is decontextualized from the exhibition, as well as Murray’s oeuvre, which has interrogated the themes of race and politics and critiqued corruption and greed in South Africa. This exhibition is a sequel to Murray’s highly acclaimed 2010 show Hail to the Thief, and subverts the poster form techniques of the struggle art genre. It also highlights poignant themes around the perceived culture of tenderpreneurship and enrichment among the ANC aristocracy, while most South Africans languish in poverty, in its disillusioned depictions of the abuse of power, and the elite’s infamous penchant for Johnnie Walker Black.
But Zuma should take comfort in the knowledge that he is not the only statesman being lampooned thus by artists – last week Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, was depicted in the buff on an Ottoman with a pooch. Harper’s office responded by tweet with considerably more humour: “On the Sutherland painting: we’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person”. He could also take some notes from South African opposition leader Helen Zille. She merely laughed off a photo-shopped image of herself that has been circulating in retaliation online.
‘The Spear’ has been sold to a foreign buyer for about ZAR135,000, and The Goodman remains defiant in continuing to display the painting and the exhibition. The painting has been removed for now due to damage. Murray could not be reached for comment.
Desné Masie is a journalist and academic. She is a former senior editor for the Financial Mail in South Africa, and is currently studying towards a PhD in finance at the University of Edinburgh Business School.