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A rather controversial painting recently went on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa. The painting “The Spear” features the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, with his genitals exposed. Considering South Africa’s history with apartheid and racism, this painting stirred emotions of fear and anger within the entire country at the apparent racism and disrespect behind it.
The artist of this painting, Brett Murray, is a prominent figure in the South African artistic world. Based in Cape Town, he established the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch, and he co-founded the Section 27 company known as ‘Public Eye’ which helps to increase the profile for public art in Cape Town.
He often curates shows and has his own solo shows. His works are also housed in a number of prestigious public collections in South Africa and abroad. What, then, could the motive be behind this prominent artist’s ‘inappropriate’ portrayal of the South African president?
Historical intersections of art and politics can testify to the role of some artists as powerful political commentators. The question is to what extent art is and should be free to express itself fully and in any way that it wishes? To what extent can it be accepted as ‘art for art’s sake’?
In the time of Stalin’s rule as Premier of the Soviet Union, there were various restrictions and rules on the nature of art and music created – music that did not follow these ‘rules’ were subsequently banned and/or their authors suffered major professional and personal consequences. It was only after Stalin’s death in 1953 that some Russian composers aired their feelings and opinions of this ruler.
For example, the brutal and savage second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony has been described as a ‘musical portrait of Stalin himself’. Although such anti-Stalin expressions were banned during Stalin’s rule, they could never be permanently excluded from the Russian arts.
An American equivalent of this controversial painting is the anti-Obama poster used by critics of the Obama administration, a poster also known as the Barack Obama ‘joker’ poster. This poster, which features Obama as ‘The Joker’ from the film ‘The Dark Knight’, has been described as racist, poisonous and mocking – but it has also been described as brilliant and artistic.
A challenge has been issued for the creator(s) of this image to come forward and explain themselves. The image seems to be infamous and to have created a stir, and yet is accepted as a mere form of protest against the current American government.
Could Murray’s supposedly ‘anti-Zuma’ painting then be considered a mere form of political protest against the current political party. Surely one cannot prevent art from being an expression of a culture, a nation and its thoughts: the problems of different eras.
Yes, ‘The Spear’ could be meant as political protest, but South Africa’s historical and current problems with racism makes this particular ‘political protest’ verge on the unacceptable. The president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Senzeni Zokwana, expressed the criticism that this painting is how white people ultimately regard and see black people in South Africa.
The painting might be infamous for its inappropriate depiciton of a prominent figure in South Africa, yet most criticism against ‘The Spear’ is not aimed at its deformation of the president’s character. In fact, most criticism seems to be aimed at the apparent racism implied through the painting.
The issue at stake, then, is not Murray’s motives behind creating this painting, nor is it whether such a depicition of the president should be accepted or even allowed. The issue is that this painting has highlighted the fear and possible remaining presence of racism in South Africa. As long as the issue of racism remains prominent in the country, any form of anti-stance to a political party or prominent figure could be ascribed to racism.