Is it racism or is it art? What is this thing? What the hell has happened to us as a country during this last week?
Whatever it is, I’m afraid there’s no going back.
Never again would an innocent phrase such as “honorary member” be spoken in Parliament or anywhere else without someone in the background sniggering. The genie is out of the bottle, the horse has bolted, the zip is undone, we are fucked.
This is the place in our history, like no other place, where we South Africans, collectively, must finally face our own nakedness. This is the ultimate episode in the coming of age of us as a country which might henceforth be remembered as “the naming of parts”. This is the true Rubicon, the moment of truth. This is like that day in the Garden of Eden when Adam looked at Eve and noticed her assets for the first time. Or that metaphorical turning point in the childhood fable where the little boy shouts out: “The Emperor has no clothes on!”
In our case, of course, Brett Murray is the little boy and President Zuma is the Emperor, and yes, leaving politics aside for the moment and speaking on a personal level, speaking of President Zuma as a husband and a father, Brett Murray did a very naughty thing when he made that picture.
Let’s be serious for a moment.
On a purely personal level, I tend to agree with Brett’s enemies. For, if this work of art is nothing but criticism of President Zuma’s love life, sure, burn the bloody thing and drag the artist off to the Human Rights Commission. No one has the right to criticise a man for marrying six wives. Those women all went into that matrimonial union voluntarily, they were not forced, neither were they raped. I’d like to remind the people who criticise Zuma’s love life that this is a man who survived the incredibly traumatic ordeal of a rape trial and won; a rape trial that, in hindsight, may very well have been orchestrated by his political enemies and subsequently blown out of all proportion by the media, a rape trial based on the flimsiest of hearsay evidence, a rape trial that humiliated him for months on end, even to the point of exposing what he did in bathroom afterwards. No wonder Zuma hates the press! I must admit that, if this happened to me, I would certainly mistrust all journalists for a very, very long time.
I can also understand the anger and the agony felt by ANC members at the indignity of this work of art. It is a perfectly human reaction, a reaction not unlike the pained reaction certain segments of the white community felt when it was revealed that Eugene Terre’Blanche had been found dead with his fly open. Such a revelation, such a picture, is no trifling matter. It cuts to the bone. It causes extreme discomfort and embarrassment. The Terre’Blanche revelation caused me to feel uncomfortable, too, and I wasn’t even a fan of the guy.
What a pity, then, that up until now almost everyone seemed to overlook two very obvious points: (i) the context of the painting as a whole and (ii) the context of the painting as part of a total exhibition.
What are the real issues here? Is this really about polygamy, or about racism, or about taking a shower after sex? I don’t think so.
Let’s ask ourselves some penetrating questions! Let’s get to the bottom of this thing!
Question no. 1: What colour is the painting?
Answer: It is predominantly red. It is the same red as the logos of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Wimpy. It is also the same red as a Cosatu T-shirt. Surely there is some significant meaning in this.
Question no. 2: What is the title of the painting?
Answer: It is called “The Spear”. “Spear”, obviously, as in “Spear of the nation”. Spear, also as in warfare, hostility, imperialism, anti-imperialism, all things military. The word “spear” also signifies a phallic symbol, thus equating itself with other famous phallic symbols of our country: the Taal Monument, church steeples, et cetera.
Question no. 3: What is the context of the entire exhibition?
Answer: Well, I haven’t seen the exhibition firsthand, but I have seen enough reproductions of Brett Murray’s other works in the press to understand that this is an art exhibition that protests against ANC politics and practices in this day and age, especially the corruption and mismanagement we all know about.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere! We have finally separated the wood from the trees, we can spot the real thingamabob!
As a political statement, and leaving aside, for the moment, all inappropriate reflections on Zuma’s real or imagined private parts, any reasonable person would have to conclude that this painting is not a racial stereotype, nor a sexual satire, but a rather badly veiled – or rather, not veiled at all – criticism of the ANC as a political organ.
In other words, it has nothing to do with Love Me Tender and everything to do with the love of tenders.
I suspect that Brett’s work, at its core, is also more than simply an exposé, in artistic terms, of corrupt ANC practices: it is a commentary on the Stalinism of so-called revolutionary movements gone wrong everywhere in the world. It might even be an indictment of the American dream gone wrong. It portrays the unholy union between the comrades and certain segments of big business which the ANC has entered into when the alleged arms deal went down and ever since. In fact, leaving Zuma’s private life aside, the modern ANC is, admittedly, like a man with many too wives: they are trying to cater to struggle ideals on the one hand and the so-called “free market” on the other hand, and making a balls-up of both.
On the one hand, the ANC, as a struggle organisation, inherited some pretty scary dogmas from their old allies in erstwhile Red China and Communist Russia. On the other hand, they must survive in a modern-world context dominated by American-driven globalisation: capitalism with all its ugly side effects, such as the selling of weapons to poor African countries and the dumping of nuclear waste all over the Third World. No matter what shade of red they choose, red will never be green, and that, in short, is why our entire planet is being raped by politicians from every part of the colour spectrum.
One more thought. There are people who interpret Brett Murray’s artwork from a purely liberalistic European point of view. On one hand we have Zuma’s family members, who see it as an example of Eurocentric decadence. On the other hand we have people who hail the Western principle of freedom of speech and defend the artwork purely on that basis, whether they like it or not. Though these are probably valid angles of looking at this issue, I find the pro-freedom-of-speech crowd slightly snobbish and a bit patronising. It is one small step to go from the argument “the ANC has no understanding of liberal values and the rights of the individual” (which is, sadly, all too often true) to the statement “Black people in general don’t seem to understand the Western ideals of freedom of expression etc. since they hadn’t even invented the wheel yet.” This is at the core of the liberal delusion. This is the black hole of Afro-pessimism which liberal thinkers so easily stumble into. I have been on the brink of this hole a few times. David Bullard, poor man, fell into this hole pens en pootjies. Even Helen Zille has teetered (or should I say tweeted) right on the edge once or twice. It’s a very easy hole to plunge into, and very hard one to get out of once you’re inside.
Freedom of speech and all that stuff is great, yes, but we must not forget that, in the West, we have invented that idea only very recently. The whole world did not become instantly free-thinking and individualistic with the enlightened writings of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Descartes. In fact, before John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their famous sit-ins and naked photo shoots – only forty years ago! – American culture was all about green berets, nuclear family values, eating dead animals with unpleasant sauce and way too much starch, resettling Arabs and fucking up the environment. One only has to watch the body language of Romney to see how very much this anal patriarchal bullshit still is with us today. In fact, we so-called liberals, in spite of all our talk about political correctness, are, in many ways, worse than ever. The veneer of liberalism is rather thin. And it might get worse. If the euro continues its downward slide, our fellow Africans will soon be able to point fingers at the fallen nations of the West, and say: “Ha, look at those whiteys, they don’t really understand economics, do they, it’s because they wasted their time inventing the wheel and never learned how to draw pretty pictures on the walls of caves and follow the spoors of wild animals in the Kalahari.”
Let’s get at least one thing straight (at the risk of forcing yet another pun). We dare not obscure the true meaning of this Brett Murray artwork with dumb arguments, name-calling and personal insults. The stereotyping, if any, is in the eyes of the beholders, both those pro and anti, and I doubt very much whether it has ever been intended by the artist to be an intrinsic part of the work itself.
This is our central dilemma. Because, unless we face up to these uncomfortable truths, we will never be reconciled with one another, we will never learn to just hang out together as members of the rainbow nation.
And if we can’t learn to do that, we are basically fucked. And we will have no one to blame it on but ourselves.
This piece was written and submitted before the vandalism of the Zuma artwork occurred. I am appalled and horrified at what happened at the Goodman Gallery. Now we truly are fucked.