Censorship in South Africa
Brett Murray, The Spear, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 185 x 140cm
A brief sketch for a satirical play: it is a kind of Threepenny Opera, if you will. A sculptor – he is white, his politics left and his belly suggestive of successful gallery sales – paints a scabrous painting of his country’s president in Leninist pose, a flaccid penis plainly visible. A Sunday newspaper reproduces the image. The president and his mandarins are outraged. Brighten stage lights. ‘Take it down,’ demands the president. ‘No,’ replies the artist’s dealer. ‘Off to court then!’ sings the chorus. The opposing parties exit the stage.
Enter two iconoclasts – one is really a Japanese action painter disguised as a black taxi driver, the other a hard-edge abstractionist of European extraction. They proceed to deface the offending painting. ‘WTF!’ sings the chorus. ‘WTF!’ Enter the president. ‘Long live the spirit of no surrender, long live!’ cheers the chorus. Enter the artist. The chorus politely claps. The stage is quickly repurposed. It is now a courtroom. A judge peers down at the president’s counsel. ‘What remedy?’ he sternly asks. ‘A total banning order, my lord,’ replies counsel. ‘That’s so like Middle Age,’ interjects the chorus. ‘The painting has its own Wikipedia page.’ The president’s counsel faints. Curtains down. Possible applause.
This, more or less, is how things have unfolded in the aftermath of the public display at the Goodman Gallery of artist Brett Murray’s rather leaden piece of satire, The Spear. The acrylic painting depicts South African president Jacob Zuma with his penis exposed and has been labelled ‘rude, crude, disrespectful and racist’ by a ruling party spokesman. Murray’s controversial work selectively quotes a 1967 poster by Russian socialist realist painter Victor Ivanov, which included the wording ‘Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live!’ (courtesy of Vladimir Mayakovsky). Murray’s work, which forms part of a solo exhibition filled with appropriated and recontextualised graphics, has no text component.
Victor Ivanov, Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will!, 1967
Following the Goodman Gallery’s refusal to act on a legal request to remove the work, the ruling African National Congress sought an urgent order to have the work removed from the gallery, as well as City Press newspaper’s website. On Tuesday, however, the stand-off was upset when white businessman Barend la Grange painted two red crosses onto Murray’s work, followed almost immediately after by 25-year-old taxi driver Louis Mabokela smearing black paint onto the work. Both were arrested and charged with malicious damage to property. In a television interview Le Grange stated that, while appreciative of Murray’s satire, his gesture was aimed at defusing brewing racial tensions. ‘Last week it was an art-political issue,’ he said, ‘then it changed into a racial issue.’
Despite the temporary closure of the Goodman Gallery and removal of the defaced artwork, the ANC pressed on with its legal case. The exact nature of the ANC’s quarrel with Murray and his gallery became an issue during advocate Gcina Malindi’s arguments on behalf of the ANC. At one point during his halting presentation, Malinda described the “composite body” portrayed in the painting as demonstrating a “propensity to lewdness”. Pressed to clarify how the court could help the applicant, other than to impose an order that the artist and City Press newspaper unreservedly apologise to the president, also why the work was necessarily racist, Malindi buckled. He eventually broke down in tears. The court was adjourned.
The grandiose and exaggerated iconophilia that has gripped South Africa for the last two weeks, while comically diverting, is also unsurprising. Graphically figurative works have a history of causing offence to state authorities. The president is currently involved in litigation with newspaper cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro) over a cartoon depicting the president unbuckling his belt, about to sexually violate a woman representative of Lady Justice. Zuma’s unionist allies are pictured holding her down. The work has been the subject of widespread debate since it was published in the South Africa Sunday Times in September 2008, at a time when protracted gerrymandering culminated in the ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki, making possible Zuma’s accession to power.
The legalistic context of Mbeki’s expulsion formed an unavoidable backdrop to I am not me, the horse is not mine, a 40-minute lecture-performance devised by William Kentridge. Premiered at the 2008 Sydney Biennale, Kentridge spoke purposefully, but with humour about his favourite books. Animatedly chasing after the thread of an idea, Kentridge at one point also sighed: ‘I am just the artist, I make the drawings.’ The performance ended with Kentridge reading from a transcript of editor and Bolshevik insider Bukharin’s trial before the Plenum of the Central Committee in 1937. He was executed in 1938. The work elicited no comment from government.
Zuma, who was charged with raping a 31-year-old woman in 2005 and subsequently found not guilty, is a polarising figure. In her new novel, No Time Like The Present, an often turgid, liturgical analysis of the freedom years, Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer writes: ‘[Zuma] had testified in court he was aware the young woman with whom he had sexual intercourse in the rape charge was HIV-positive: in his victory speech at the Polokwane conference he declared ‘all structures of government should actively participate in the fight against HIV and Aids in all facets of the national strategy’ … Zuma President of the Party.’
Gordimer’s book also includes a brief passage about artist and free-jazz musician Harold Rubin’s controversial drawing, My Jesus. Exhibited at Gallery 101 in Johannesburg in July 1962, the work depicted a naked black Christ figure on a cross, the words ‘;I forgive you O Lord, for you know not what you do’ accompanying the image. It was seized by police and Rubin was charged with blasphemy. After five weeks of legal argument in court a regional magistrate dismissed the state’s case.
The cipher of the naked black body bears scrutiny. In 1990 Steve Hilton-Barber, a contemporary of Guy Tillim, exhibited a photo essay in Johannesburg showing the initiation ceremonies of Northern Sotho youths living on his family farm. The photos, many still startling for their intimacy and nudity, prompted deep outrage amongst black audiences. Works were stolen and angry messages written the Market Theatre’s visitor’s book. ‘Fuck off you white racist bastard,’ offered one note. Another stated: ‘Go and get fucked you don’t know what you are doing, expose your own culture and let’s see your foreskin with all the diseases.’
A similar but different distress marked the debate around white art student Kaolin Thompson’s sculpture, Useful Objects (1996), an ashtray in the shape of a black vagina. As in Murray’s case, news of the artwork’s existence was published in the arts pages of a newspaper. Baleka Kgositsile, deputy speaker of the National Assembly, wrote a scathing letter in a Johannesburg newspaper. Her outrage has a historical context: the ghost of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman exhibited in 19th century Europe, her genitalia preserved and displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, haunts portrayals of black feminine sexuality. It does not, however, explain the increasingly calcified morality of the ruling party. In 2009, former Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana refused to open an exhibition featuring Zanele Muholi’s intimate portrayals of lesbian couples because she considered them “pornographic”. Muholi is scheduled to exhibit in dOCUMENTA (13).
Brett Muray, The President, 2006
I think Murray, a former anti-apartheid activist who has been judiciously remained silent since the boiled ruptured last week, deserves the final word. In 2006 I interviewed him about a series of self-portraits in which he wore a nappy, crocheted booties and bonnet. Murray’s school album pose was unvaried; only the wording in the accompanying signboard changed. His list of types included ‘The Sycophant’, ‘The Artist’ and ‘The President’. ‘I hope that there is some resonance beyond a one-liner,’ he conjectured. ‘Hopefully there is other stuff going on: about identity, politics, change, the shifts, and – I suppose – the boring notions of the white South African having to re-learn, or being told to re-learn. When can I just be an adult and respected as an adult?’