Jeremiah Kure
Jeremiah Kure

Zuma painting: Spearing the psyche and esteem of a nation

Private parts are just that. They are private. And even though the president is not exactly a private citizen, his privates have no place in the public arena. Not everyone agrees of course. It is, after all, the way of democracy but it seems even democracy has a nasty divisive side to it.

The Spear may only be worth R136k but it is certainly not worth the racial tension and cultural aggravation it has whipped up in the wake of its infamous display at the Goodman Gallery. There are other costs yet to be quantified: costs relating to cultural dilution and erosion which will have a devastating long term impact on the psyche of black South Africa.

In a sense, it is sheer irony that an obscene, degrading and what some have denounced as an immoral painting has become a rallying point for advocates of the political moral high ground. Lost to those arguing the case for democratic expressions of protest is the surge of wounded emotions which many, not just Zuma himself, his family and ANC cadres, are nursing.

More to the point, The Spear has exposed a sad propensity amongst some of our upcoming black middle class, particularly those of the born-free, new-money variety, to embrace all things sophisticated at the expense of the cultural values that have served generations of their people so well. Having embraced ‘twitterdom’ and the illusion of being global citizens, the chattering classes have taken to cyberspace to philosophise the merits of the outrageous acrylic-on-canvas painting without due consideration for their own traditions which, by implication, they have forsaken with utmost disdain.

Preferring to pander to western tastes, they peer condescendingly at the lowly world of their parents, with what they think is intellectual sophistication born of democracy and constitutional rights. This is the generation western cultural imperialism has spawned in its wake; the twittering, hip and trendy enthusiasts of a postmodern South Africa who, having drunk from democracy’s poisoned chalice, have unwittingly joined in the chorus of profanities against their own culture. And in their intellectual drunken stupor, they have gone as far as labeling opposers of the Zuma spear, “dark” and “illiterate”.

“Dark” and “illiterate” – descriptors of the black man that are a throw back to a long gone colonial era. About the age of 10 or so, I vividly recall believing and picturing the rest of Africa north of here as being a “dark” continent; this of course due to the influence of reading high and mighty imperial literature that described the territory unknown to me at that point as such. Indeed such is the power of the graphic medium, with its stark display of savages and weighty prose to collaborate the prejudices of those who “discovered” and brought enlightenment to Africa in the time of explorers and missionaries. Such remains the power of the medium which, in today’s digital age, has assumed far greater impact on the psyche of our children to whom the practice and culture of ubuntu is in danger of being lost forever. It will ultimately prove to be an incalculable loss and a devastating triumph for radicalism devoid of respect for African cultural norms and values.

This is the insidious subplot to the Zuma spear saga which I find deeply disturbing, and which I realise the majority of my “sophisticated” contemporaries have not grasped. This obscene art piece at the center of what is increasingly becoming an emotive national furore is but one of the many weapons that is being used (perhaps unintentionally) as a tool for cultural subjugation, cultural ridicule, and slowly but surely cultural annihilation. In effect, it is as though the artist is saying “Fuck your African values of modesty around intimacy, fuck your culture of respecting elders and, to top it off, here is your top authority in the land, yes, your effing president whom you buffoons were silly to vote for, here he is on display in the most obscene and most culturally objectionable of renderings.” You might argue it is not so; preferring the line that the piece is a sophisticated metaphor on corruption, etcetera, whereas most see it as an affront to their sense of decency and are therefore deeply aggrieved.

We must not be surprised if tomorrow, children treat their “disappointing” parents in the most distasteful of ways because the lofty artistic society has taught them that it is okay to do so.

In defending the expression of dissent at what most, including myself, agree are the unfortunate but nonetheless humane indiscretions of the president, we only have ourselves to blame should the day come when the expression of any form of protest to leadership lapses through obscene and offensive mediums. It is not the African way and at this rate, we are in danger of losing the African way of dealing with such issues.

America, the standard bearer of modernism, has perverted democratic freedoms to the point where naughty kids cannot be disciplined by teachers. This is the unruly society we will also inherit soon hereafter, where our cultural safeguards are eroded and eventually swept aside.

Of course we are not stupid. We have a sense that there have been cockups in the upper echelons of power. Yes, the president might have invited ridicule and scorn upon himself, but really, must we open ourselves to the abuse of our cultural norms and values in the process?

I for one embrace most things just and pure including democracy-without-motives, democracy-without-self-interest or democracy-without-hidden-agendas for that matter (which form of democracy doesn’t exist by the way?), but I will not let anyone ridicule my culture, my sense of decency and the dignity of my people in the name of democratic artistic expression. And so it hardly suprises me to hear that Advocate Malindi broke down in court yesterday.

This repulsive artwork that some of us have rushed to defend before applying our African ethos (preferring instead to exercise our western-bent intellect) is a loaded weapon. In many of us it has reignited angry feelings of past injustices and caused us to feel once more and needlessly so the same pain our ancestors endured during slavery; it has resurrected the inhumanity of apartheid and the ridicule of colonialism.

We cannot be naive and make the mistake of underestimating the impact of The Spear on the psyche and esteem of our people. Let there be no doubt, Brett Murray’s piece is a triumph for cultural imperialism (whether or not he intended it). Black people should celebrate it at their own peril. The reality is that our minds are in danger of being enslaved by western values, western mediums of dissent and the abuse of democratic expression to the detriment of our worldview and relational paradigms as Africans.

I am sorely reminded of Bob Marley’s exhortation to people of colour everywhere: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” Clearly, it is an exhortation that has fallen on deaf ears. Instead, it is to the ideals of democracy at the cost of our values that we have given our hearts and minds. A piece of artwork that demeans our sense of decency and the artist who painted it, has become the poster boy of our dissenting voices and our “sophistication”. The upholding of the lofty ideal of democratic expression has become more precious than our collective dignity. What a pity!

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