Saturday, January 16, 2021

A president’s genitals and a spear that divided a nation

It has been over two weeks since a Cape Town artist Brett Murray painted a portrait of the South African president in the pose of the Victor Ivanov poster of Lenin called Lenin Lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live. The portrait, entitled The Spear, showed the president’s genitals exposed.

For a number of days, before it was defaced and vandalized by Barend la Grange and Louis Mabokela, the portrait was displayed at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The controversial painting was part of an exhibition with an even more provocative title: Hail to the thief II. The painting has drawn much expected condemnation from the African National Congress and has strained race relationship and polarised a people in a country with a hostile apartheid history. The major debate has centred on freedom of expression, resistance art, satire versus obscenity, racism, irresponsibility and crossing the line on the part of the artist. The ANC has characterised the painting as “rude, crude and disrespectful” and demanded the gallery to take the painting down.
Since the painting appeared in the City Press newspaper; the ANC has also demanded the City Press to remove it from their website and as a sign of protest, it has urged South Africans to boycott the City Press.

Brett Murray has exposed more than the president! He has exposed the fragile post 1994 South Africa’s democracy. He has demonstrated that progressive as the South African constitution may appear; it exists in a highly conservative African society. Perhaps Brett Murray has exposed the internal South African tensions between blacks and whites which in many ways represent the tensions between European and African conflicts played out in an African country. Perhaps the painting captures the western preoccupation with black men’s genital. Who better represents this traditional stereotypical portrayal of the African native than the polygamist Zulu president who showers after having unprotected sex in an activity of infidelity? The uncomfortable question does exist though: is it proper to paint or to take a picture of anybody with their genitals hanging out regardless of who they are? For a moment we must forget that the painting is that of President Jacob Zuma so that our position on the question should neither be influenced by his station nor by our disdain for his person. What would make it right? Artistic permissiveness?

I am usually surprised by certain unique western mannerisms and ways of thinking. While living in Europe as a graduate student a couple of years ago, I was shocked about how people there cared more about the rights of animals, than those of their fellow human beings. They argued that it was improper for dogs to be chained and locked up, but did not extend such privileges to their prisoners. Homeless dogs were taken in and cared for while their streets were flowing over with homeless beggars. In many European cities it is very rare to see the sight of a naked boy walking the streets. In fact the sight of a donkey’s genitalia usually engenders shy giggles from ladies.

How rude of the donkey to reveal its large penis in the presence of ladies? Now here we find ourselves arguing over the exposure of the genitals of a 70 year old father of 20 in an infamous painting. Is this what we mean by freedom of expression? The freedom to draw the president’s hanging genitals? Is the ANC right in arguing that pieces of art such as these are offensive or are they stifling artists’ creativity? Are artists right in arguing that a painting of Zuma’s hanging genitals is satire or is satire really white people’s concept which to many Africans is just makgakga fela? Are there boundaries to artistic expression or none exist? Shouldn’t artists be sensitive to African cultural sentiments? Or perhaps this is democracy in action? Does democracy include the possible picture of a president with hanging genitals? Some have argued that South African lives in a racially polarised country and that Brett Murray in his painting was culturally insensitive. But is it culturally insensitivity or his kind of drawing will receive universal condemnation? Which culture legitimizes the drawing of its leader with hanging genitals? Or perhaps the problem is that a white person has drawn a black person in bad light. So this matter may really be a racial one and not an artistic one. Afterall the artist did not draw De Klerk or Pik Botha with their genitals exposed. Perhaps the South African Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande was right that The Spear is “one of the most serious violations of the black body in recent times”.

Some have however argued that the artist has a right to paint anything that he wants. Really? Even the president of a republic with exposed genitals?

It appears to me that every human being is endowed with dignity by the creator which if offended, offends the entire national conscience. But who is racist in this regard; the black protesters or the white artist? Certainly this is not the first time that Jacob Zuma has been drawn in the nude.

The artist Ayanda Mabulu whose names mean the Afrikaners are expanding, painted Zuma in the nude in 2010 which did not result with such social outcry. Was that picture less offensive than the current one? Not at all. The said picture depicts the president’s genitals in crutches as well as the genitals of one Archbishop Desmond Tutu in bandages! Mabulu’s painting was explained as metaphoric.

Tutu’s genitals were said to symbolize how weakened he had become; “incapacitated and colonised by western values” while Zuma’s “manhood indicate overuse and that it needs crutches to get by”.

Strangely no one really cared about this painting. Was this because this was black on black violence while the Murray painting was seen as white on black? Perhaps it’s like the word nigger.

Blacks can use it on each other but it is taboo for whites to call a black man a nigger. It’s racist. But why is it important to draw sickly genitals to send a political messages across? As retaliation nude Photoshopped pictures of Helen Zille have appeared on the web!

I have asked a few of my colleagues what would happen if the South African circus happened in Botswana. The answers has been consistent: They would be deported; PI-ed, declared persona non-grata. Persona non grata is a Latin expression which means an unwelcome person; really a person without grace; a person devoid of God’s favour. It’s a scary prospect! A Mochudi friend of mine has a different response: “Re ka mo feela”.

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