The whole nation is buzzing with opinions ranging from wrathful to thoughtful – as can be expected, more of the former and less of the latter – so I might as well add a few squibs to the seething pot of national opinion. Why not? I’m entitled to my opinion, seeing that South Africa has a much vaunted constitution that gives us freedom of speech in our now not-so-new democracy that is proving to be not-so democratic and not so aglow with the happy rainbow of 1994.
Eighteen years down the line Brett Murray’s painting The Spear has thrown into high relief just how divided we still are, well and truly split along the good old racial lines of black and white – or should I say black v.s. white? Or should it be white v.s. black ? Who knows? All I do know is that we’re glaring at each other across a deep chasm from our respective entrenched positions, either side of the divide.
My foreign readers are probably wondering what I’m talking about. Well, SA artist Brett Murray’s satirical Soviet-style painting depicted our Prez, Mr Jacob Zuma, with his privates dangling out of his trousers and titled it Spear of the Nation. This work was part of an exhibition titled Hail to the Thief II mounted by the Goodman Art Gallery – a prestigious up-market gallery of long-standing in Johannesburg. And from here on in everybody and his dog has taken a stand, based on lofty principle, cultural values, presidential dignity and rights, freedom of expression, public decency, morality of the nation.. oh, I could go on, but I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now. In short: Stands Have Been Taken. Curiously enough I haven’t heard any righteous wrath being expressed about the title of the whole exhibition, which is a satirical twist on the American anthem Hail to the Chief. It would seem there’s been so much attention devoted to Mr Z’s unmentionables that nobody has (yet) got around to contemplating the twisted title.
What fascinates me is that the uproar has not focussed on what the artist was trying to convey with his painting, but has focussed on the issues of Presidential dignity and public decency, and – of course, because this is South Africa – the perceived racial slur/bias/canard, call it what you will. We’ve had thunderous outrage on the topic of black cultural values, and hysterical Old Testament demands that Brett Murray be stoned (from the Rev Enoch Mthembu, spokesman for the Shembe Church) presumably on the grounds of impiety. Can you believe it – in this day and age, in a non-Muslim country, stoning as punishment for abuse of artistic licence? If I give this bizarre suggestion so much as an inch of headspace, I can feel my brain hurting.
Yet again we have a titanic clash of Third World v.s. First World cultural norms and values. Third World values in this part of Africa encompass patriarchy, conservatism and traditionalism. First World values in this part of Africa encompass Western cultural history, capitalism, consumerism and technology. Never the twain shall meet. And when they do meet, watch out! They’re not happy bedfellows. The complication is, of course, that we’re sharing the same country …… Although we’re a proudly democratic country, we also have a section of our legislature that is occupied by the National House of Traditional Leaders (chiefs, headmen etc) so we’ve got a Western style democracy, but with a twin component of patriarchal leaders – go figure. My head is hurting again. Polygamy is quite acceptable in our patriarchy, and in fact, admired. What’s that you say? Womens’ rights? Oh those.. oh well, in the rural areas… Like I said before, an uneasy mix of Third and First World. Not to harp on the fact that our president is a polygamist with four wives and plenty of children. Is this ri-dick-ulous? Or is it a facet of our glorious multiculturalism?
So traditional tribal cultural values have yet again collided with Western artistic values and the tsunami seems to be gathering force. I don’t recall any furore about the exhibition of classical Greek statues which often feature nudity (Michelangelo’s David comes to mind, an image frequently seen on screen and in books) and David’s tackle is depicted with even more textbook fidelity than Brett Murray’s image. I would love to know what Murray intended to convey with this work. Was he hoping it would raise memories of old Soviet style dictators and draw a parallel between those figures and our ANC hierarchy? Was he wanting to highlight the patriarchal nature of our President? Was he commenting on (dare I say it? How much hate mail will I receive?) men’s preoccupations with their penises? Just what was he trying to say? It’s worth noting that Murray has been around a long time, he’s not some recent parvenu trying to make his mark on the art scene. He’s an award winning international artist. Earlier in his career he produced anti-apartheid works so he can’t be dismissed as an evil, white colonialist lackey. But doubtless somebody will get round to this shortly. The words ‘colonialist’ and ‘racist’ have already been flying around like a flock of ugly birds.
Was Murray just trying to be controversial? If so, I’d say he’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.