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Murray’s painting mirrors Zuma’s life

I had already started writing my angry views about my president unzipped and exposed. When I started, I wrote it as a man, a black man, Saartjie Baartman’s brother, as someone raised by my grandmother with a moral stick.

And I had joined in solidarity with those who are angry about the way President Jacob Zuma is portrayed in a painting at the Goodman Gallery.

In my draft, my anger was about the fact that we cannot rejoice or laugh when a grown man’s penis – whether it’s black or white – is hanging out in the name of art. Where I was raised, when we saw even an old drunk man with his manhood hanging unchecked we were told to either close our eyes or look sideways until the zip was fixed.

I also raised the issue about our country facing a serious moral dilemma, coupled with the division and anger along racial lines, and the timing of Brett Murray’s exhibition.

My draft was also asking whether art can be used to denigrate in the name of freedom of expression and speech; and whether Murray’s artwork is indeed art, or was he just taking a swipe at a president he dislikes, who is black.

The artwork which dominated headlines for the past two weeks and had many people talking, and is now before the courts, shows (showed) what looks like President Zuma in a Vladimir Lenin-like trench coat pose with his trousers unzipped and his penis hanging out. It’s called many names as well: Unzipped Fly, The Spear, Mshini, Dick-tator, etc. The painting has since been defaced (for better or for worse?).

In my draft piece I expressed how this artwork was distasteful, immoral and insulting – not only to the person of President Zuma, but to myself as a man.

But then again, I wondered, who am I defending? This is my president we’re talking about.

I wondered: Murray and his artwork aside, how will I remember President Zuma, say, ten years from now?

Truth be told, I will remember the president for his many wives, and his confession that he slept with his comrade’s daughter who happens to be HIV positive without a condom. I’ll remember that he took a shower to try and minimise chances of contracting the disease. And that he, despite the fact that he has not one, not two but four wives waiting for him back home, went on and cheated with his friend’s daughter, Sonono Khoza, with whom he sired a child. And he’s my dancing president – that’s what will first come to mind if I was asked about President Zuma.

Seriously. I cannot say I remember him for delivering water to my mother’s village in Ga-Mamabolo in Limpopo because he hasn’t. Or for governance, because since he came to power we have been talking more about his personal life and family than issues that will take the country forward.

So if I was Murray or any comedian and wanted to do something about President Zuma, what would I do?

Alex Eliseev summed it up when he asked, “Are we witnessing an assassination of Zuma’s character or are we seeing the art world holding up a mirror to a man who has never been far from controversy? Would artists have painted Barack Obama with his penis hanging out?”

I don’t think artists would have reason to strip Obama naked, but with President Zuma they do, and they did. President Zuma should admit he, in part, brought this upon himself. He needs to start self-introspecting and get his life in order.

He cannot cry victim when he lives his life like a porn – sorry, I meant pop star.

Since his presidency, comedians had him write their script. He helped them keep us in stitches.

And cartoonists like Zapiro are having a meal of President Zuma with his signature showerhead and sperm-spitting machine gun depicting a penis. The president is currently embroiled in a two-year legal spat with Zapiro over another cartoon, which shows him about to rape a blindfolded Lady Justice.

So the societal perception of President Zuma cannot be limited to Murray’s artwork.

Where the ANC is right is that the painting is “against the grain of African morals”. But where it’s wrong is to think that we have the responsibility to improve the president’s public image. He is responsible for his own image and no one but him needs to start behaving as a public servant worthy of respect.

The painting may be defaced; the full bench of judges may rule in his favour to have the painting removed from the gallery (something that has already happened anyway). But the public perception of him is not defaced. No court will rule to have the images we have of our president’s sexual ways removed from our minds.

I could have gone to join others outside court this week. Or I could have been the third guy to deface and vandalise the painting at the Goodman Gallery.

But the many times President Zuma has disappointed me and many others with his moral slip-ups is why I couldn’t.

And as for Murray, I still don’t think undressing someone, exposing his manhood, can be described as art. I don’t think Murray would draw his father’s genitalia (every older person in a village is our father) and hope to win a pat on his back accompanied by the words: “You are creative, my son.”

Author

  • Isaac Mangena

    Isaac Mangena is a Chapter Nine Communicator slash activist. He has spent much of the past ten years of his life in a newsroom. He is a former TV and Newspaper journalist who focuses on African and international news. He previously worked for Media24 and Agence France-Presse. Isaac holds a BA Psychology degree from the University of the North (now Limpopo). He reads, writes and critique – a lot.