Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

#Zumaspear and the politics of the cock

When I first saw the painting of the The Spear I instinctively felt that it was wrong for one reason: if it had been a painting of a female politician with her genitalia (however small) displayed at a public art gallery, I would not have supported it. I would have felt that it was an insult to her dignity, and that it would have showed a clear lack of respect for her actions. So, I argued that this was not OK. It felt weird to be on the same side as government, I’m not going to lie.

Many people that I am friends with on Facebook and follow on Twitter thought otherwise. They argued various things along the following lines:

  1. Art is art – artists have a right to make political commentary, when you start saying that people can or can’t paint/draw/write particular things you tend to become a bit, well … dictator-like
  2. Women in SA are frequently equated with their bits, their hormones that come from those bits, and are told that they are nothing more than their bits. In fact, women’s bits are EVERYWHERE in art and in media. As yet, there has been no outcry (except before the 1993 Miss World when the ANCWL said they didn’t want such sexist pageants in the new SA – nothing since then though)
  3. Brett Murray (artist of the The Spear) is making a commentary about the way that the president has led so far – i.e. the president leads from his crotch, or perhaps that the president’s leadership style has been, well, flaccid (re Zim, women’s rights, education, poverty)
  4. We don’t have to respect the president if he has not earned respect
  5. Zuma has not voiced sentiments (apart from perhaps occasionally taking over a women’s day rally with pro-ANC rhetoric) that support women’s rights, or even said anything useful about women in his whole presidency, and so as women we shouldn’t be uncomfortable making fun of him and his ntonton

I am sympathetic to some of these, and so my feelings on the painting became more muddled.

Zapiro, quick penman that he is, made a similar drawing with apologies to Brett Murray arguing that unless Zuma was ready to earn respect he should get over the fact that people will make fun of him.

Today, two men defaced the painting at the Goodman Gallery. They walked in and painted over something which had obviously upset them. Under whose direction they did this is not yet clear. They have now been arrested. The picture now looks like this.

This defacement, and the court case that Zuma has now started, say to me that this painting went right to the core of what is not right about the president’s leadership style, and more than that what is wrong with masculinity in SA.

Zuma has characterised himself as a man’s man. He celebrates a masculinity that emphasises sexual virility and supports polygamy in the face of an HIV epidemic spread by multiple concurrent partners; a masculinity that emphasises that men take sex when they want it and, despite being accused of rape, never once says that violence against women is wrong; and a masculinity that is heteronormative and homophobic (see comments about pushing down gay men, and appointment of John Qwelane and Mogoeng Mogoeng). His masculinity has been the core of his politics thus far, and perhaps the core appeal to those who vote for him. When it is under threat the very core of what he stands for is under threat. That the painting was defaced by men is interesting and reflects that perhaps these scary sentiments about manhood and its untouchability are shared by many other men, not only Msholozi.

For now we’ll have to see what happens in court for Zuma and for the two men who defaced Murray’s painting. In the meantime state resources will be spent in court cases that focus on what it means to be a man. The politics of the cock are alive and well. And this whole saga had taught us all that they are not up for discussion.

I’d like to know what would have happened if, instead of a tiny, floppy penis, Brett Murray had drawn Zuma with a vagina.

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