While delivering a keynote address at a conference focusing on Africa in the town of Swanwick in the UK Midlands on Saturday May 26 2012, I asked my audience what news coming out of my country or out of Africa they were aware of at this time. My audience was not aware of the exciting news of May 25 2012 that the SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) had awarded the Square Kilometre Array telescope bid to South Africa. They were not aware of various Africa Day (May 25) celebrations all over Africa. They were not aware of the historic elections in Egypt on May 23rd and 24th 2012. They were definitely aware of Brett Murray’s Zuma portrait – the unsuccessful, purportedly intertextual spoof on a 1917 Communist Party portrait of Vladimir Lenin, with the addition of an exposed black penis, probably ‘borrowed’ from the hugely controversial “Man in a Polyester Suit” by the late Robert Mapplethorpe of the USA.
This entire saga and the national trauma it has caused, not to mention the international news it has made, could have been minimised or even prevented if the artist Brett Murray, the Goodman Gallery in which his painting was displayed, and the City Press newspaper which elected to put the portrait in its public website had promptly acknowledged the hurt caused by the painting, apologised accordingly and responded to the public clamour for the portrait to be removed from public spaces. By the time they apologised much damage had been done.
Instead of being given an apology, for nearly three weeks the offended millions were urged and sometimes literally commanded to substitute appreciation for indignation, laughter for their anger and sophistication for ignorance. The Brett Murray supporters’ brigade unleashed a host of haughty lessons on art, art context, text, intertextuality, presentation, representation and the art of art criticism. We were served dozens of columns on the right to artistic freedom as well as radio and TV talk shows guests purporting to teach the value of art, artists and artistic freedom. We were bombarded with patronising lessons on democracy and why not to ‘support’ Zuma and the ANC blindly – as if the umbrage of the millions taking offence at the Murray painting derives simply from their utter blindness, their terrible ignorance about matters of art and their sheer gullibility. We were told that because Zuma and the ANC ‘deserved’ it, we should consider the Zuma portrait from the corners of our eyes and get on with our lives. We were told the controversial painting was already ‘out there’ and therefore we should save our breaths as nothing we can do or say can change anything. Cynically, the vociferous defenders of the painting also argued that the painting was ‘not so important’ as the big national issues out there, therefore it should be ignored or forgotten in favour of ‘the bigger issues’. In the face of three weeks of a public outcry, the blindness of the supposedly enlightened and the deafness of the supposedly progressive was quite astounding.
Some have responded angrily to City Press editor Ferial Haffajee for her decision to apologise to Duduzile Zuma (daughter of Jacob Zuma) and her newspaper’s decision to remove the controversial painting from its website. As for me, my respect for Ferial has just increased manifold. Her decision came in spite of, not because of, the desperate threats to boycott the newspaper and are actions of a lot more courage than her initial stance. Not so very long ago Eric Miyeni – also in the hallowed name of journalistic, artistic and media freedom – savagely attacked Ferial Haffajee, effectively suggesting that in a different time, she might have deserved to be lynched, allegedly for systematically demonising black wealth. I was horrified by Miyeni’s article, its venom as well as its thinly veiled misogyny. Ferial did something for the offended which Miyeni has proved incapable of. She recognised that whatever her original intentions, the fact remained that a large section of South Africa was offended. So she apologised. A voluntary apology and show of remorse – especially when backed up with the necessary actions – is a sign not of weakness but of strength. Ferial is on the right side of history.
Like the crude, public assault on black people and black malehood on display in the Zuma portrait, the public spectacle of the brutal violence meted out to Louis Mabokela by security guard Paul Molesiwa, in contrast to the respect with which Barend le Grange was treated after both men indefensibly defaced the Zuma portrait at the gallery in broad day light, resonated one with the other – two black bodies receiving familiar treatment from two familiar forces: the police and the white male academy. The former force uses brute force to keep black bodies in check while the latter uses ‘art’ and ‘science’ to keep the black body, especially black brains and black sexuality under control.
Of course as president, Zuma is a legitimate target of historians, satirists, commentators, journalists, biographers and all manner of academic researchers and artists alike. That is the price to be paid for taking up public office and occupying the highest office in the land. Inevitably, Zuma’s political and personal indiscretions must necessarily provide the material for academic, social, political and artistic commentary and research into his work and conduct as occupier of the highest office in the land. In this regard Zuma is his own worst enemy or his best ally.
However, there is a point at which, and circumstances under which, a critique ostensibly purported for one individual becomes or is understandably experienced as an attack on a type and a group (mis)represented in the individual being targeted. In my view, the Murray painting crosses the line between attacking an individual and attacking the group represented in the individual. The group (mis)represented in the portrait are black males and the history of usable if also disposable black bodies as well as their racialised, maligned and ‘dangerous’ sexuality. Nothing captures the dangerousness of black bodies in the unspoken but deeply felt white mythology about black sexuality than the big black penis. Similarly the sexuality of black female slaves was entirely under the control of their white masters and mistresses. Apartheid’s Immorality Act outlawing sexual intercourse and marriage across the racial lines was, amongst other things, designed to contain wild black sexuality from spilling over into the white world, ‘contaminating’ that world and altering it irretrievably. Murray’s painting constitutes what one commentator on this saga, Gillian Schutte, calls “an erudite slip of the tongue” back into that logic. Millions of South Africans ‘heard’ Murray’s loud slip of the tongue and they rightfully refused to give him any further benefit of the doubt. How could they fail to ‘hear’ Murray slip when they still bear the fresh wounds of the Immorality Act, the pass laws and the migratory labour systems on their bodies and in their spirits?
Arguments about Zuma deserving this kind of artistic commentary and the amazing equation of Brett Murray with the notion of artistic freedom of expression are, quite honestly, mischievous. Sure, Zuma must ‘pay’ for his indiscretions. But Murray must equally ‘pay’ for his. Neither presidents nor artists are angels and neither should be treated as such. If there is a price to be paid for taking up public office, there are responsibilities, choices and rigours that come with artistic expression. Murray and his supporters’ brigade cannot shout “Zuma made me do it” – as if Zuma dictated this particularly vile portrait to Murray with a gun against Murray’s head. Out of a thousand possible artistic commentaries on Zuma, his conduct and his leadership style, Murray chose, rather deliberately, the familiar, typical, archetypal and vulgar path of white obsession with the surveillance, control and demonisation of black male bodies and black male genitalia. This depiction of black male sexuality is a function of while male fear of a black takeover of everything white males ‘own’ and a residual if also persistent belief in the extent to which black males and black people cannot be ‘civilised’ in spite of the suits they wear and the titles they hold.
I am not persuaded by the binary arguments of those who suggest that we have an imaginary choice between debating the meaning of the painting or debating the service delivery needs of the country; between the effect of the painting on the one hand and the reprehensible levels of violence, especially violence against women and children in our country. The choice is not either-or, it is both-and. As we hold our politicians accountable for service delivery, we should also hold our artists accountable to the mundane demands of common decency even in the articulation of art. As we call for South Africans to be afforded the dignity promised in the Constitution by means of the provision of skills and opportunities for jobs, we must also insist that the right to dignity of every South African citizen, artists and politicians, black and white, male and female, is equally protected.