Monday, October 25, 2021

Artistic expression or insult? The ‘Mankini’ debate

Before you credit me uncharacteristically brave for penning down this opinion piece, on this rather uncharacteristic subject, may I be quick to pass such credit to my traditional doctor, the legendary Setlharesennanoga, whom I consulted before I could even touch the keyboard.  Seeing the rage, the drama, the excitement, the furore, the tears, the laughter and the polarisation caused by the circulating picture of President Khama in national colours themed ‘mankini,’outfit I had to go an extra mile for insurance, safety and security. Had I told my conventional insurance company that I was embarking on this rather suicidal endeavour, I bet, they would have quadrupled my monthly premiums. That is just how risky it is to have an opinion on this ‘mankini’ thing. But trust me, nobody wants to taste the bitter sting of Setlharesennanoga and array of arsenal at his disposal. Not even the notoriously cruel DIS. Nevertheless, the departure of this piece is neither to bask the said artist/satirist in adulation of his fans nor to roast him in vilification of his enemies. The attempt here is to move the discourse beyond the picture itself to a particular conceptual framework. The view here is that, the said picture in this discourse, serves as nothing more than a trigger of a larger debate on artistic expression and normative ethics as in Botho. This is the heart of the matter. Therefore, instead of contesting merits and demerits of the picture itself, the discussion should be about the clash of two these two sets of ideas. Precisely because, it is these set of ideas that informs our taste and take on the picture and not the other way round. Having said that, the uncomfortable truth about these two sets of ideas is that they share two commonalities, abstractness and relativity. A simplistic summation of these commonalities, lies in the idiom; one man’s food, is another man’s poison.

No matter the medium, artistic expression and creative talent has been with mankind since antiquity. It is part of social fabric and transformational social change. Whatever the palette, artistic expression has left no boundary unchallenged. Inevitably, art in whatever form, thrives and progresses by challenging prevailing status quo. Hence the intersection between artistic expression and politics has never been without conflict or controversy. This uncomfortable intersection is best illustrated by three works; Brett Murray’s painting entitled The Spear which depicted President Jacob Zuma’s private parts, Ayanda Mabulu’s explicit painting of President Zuma that seemed to comment on alleged ‘state capture’ by the Gupta family and Iven Amali’s artwork that depicted naked DA leader, Mmusi Maimane pulling a wagon carrying an equally undressed Helen Zille. Now, we are having our own debate on the ‘mankini’ picture. Taking the above cases, the question then arises, does artistic expression exists in a vacuum? That is, is it boundless and infinite? If not so, what are the parameters? It is from answering these questions that we can then form value judgement on either the artist had gone overboard or was within the limits. Assuming this limits are static.

In attempting these questions, I will take our reference point on artistic expression which is best captured by Setswana expression which says ‘Pina ya Setswana ga ena bosekelo.’ Although the expression specifically mentions performing arts, as in song and dance, it does not deny other art forms such as poetry the same artistic latitude, hence Ponatshego Mokane in his poem of Tshekedi Kgama gotten away with referring to Bakalanga ba ka Nswazi as “Makalaka.” This same artistic freedom is enjoyed by Sheleng Ositilwe who sings about, “Gabanthate wa Mosarwa, wa go tsala ngwana le “motho,” ngwana a tsoge a siana.” A more contemporary example will be from Matsieng traditional dance group who sings, “Ha senana se baba, se batla se sengwe…nkadima sera tonki ke bakise ngwana lonyatso, nthekele ya tshipi tlhe, ya logong e ya robega, ya nama e ya ntia…” The question then would be, if these other art forms enjoy this liberal artistic latitude, why would we want to constrain visual and fine art? Does this mean, what one enjoys the artistic freedom to sing, does not enjoy the same freedom to express it in painting or sculpture? That would surely be a self-defeating argument.

While embracing artistic expression, there is on the other hand, normative ethics as in Botho. The question then arises, is this Botho thing, a static and timeless moral scale that all has to conform to or it is a dynamic functionary of time and space? Meaning therefore that, what was morally tolerable yesterday, does not necessarily mean it would be morally tolerable today and vice versa. Therefore, defining composition, constituents and parameters of this moral value judgement of Botho, can help us define the moral boundaries. But in the absence of such reference point, the value judgement of Botho would remain elusive, fluid and subjective to interpretation. Hence, the emphasis of ‘moral wrong’ on this ‘mankini’ picture seems to be placed on that it depicts the President, rather than on the wearing the ‘mankini.’ Meaning therefore that, depicting someone wearing a ‘mankini,’ is not necessarily ‘morally wrong,’ what makes it ‘morally wrong’ here is the personality being depicted. This then makes Botho a dependent moral value judgement on social strata and other variables. Botho then becomes an obsolete instrument of moral value judgement. As such, I then suggest, just like any other work of art, we entitle the ‘mankini’ picture to interpretation; firstly that of the artist and secondly ours. 

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