After an outburst of protests from governing party and traditionalists against a painting of a naked Jacob Zuma, the countries’ lefties are upset. Sixteen-year old South Africa has ‘failed’, says a former white politician, who in the past spoke out against apartheid. ‘This is not progress’, says a media guru with a similar anti-apartheid-outspokenness history. Another university professor: ‘This is not a laughing matter. Tolerance was tested and failed’.
Is South Africa going backward, instead of forward? I believe the opposite is true.
Let’s recapitulate briefly. A white South African artist has painted SA President Jacob Zuma in a Lenin-like pose, leading the way forward, in reddish tones. In the painting, Zuma’s genitals are exposed -and they are, as many have noted, impressive. Many people like it. Those who like it (I am among them) are predominantly white (or beige/caramel), urban, arty, and progressive, and they can see the artistic value in combining the notions of a ‘revolutionary leader’ and ‘sexual black male’. They can even appreciate that the image of the ‘black man with the big penis’ (an organ that, additionally and of course, leads him) has some roots in racist imagery.
But instead of wanting to forbid a portrait of this image, they see that an artist can, and must, creatively use all images to create new images -and debate, and emotion. That, after all, is what art is all about. And, on a much simpler level, if any black male leader ever asked to be portrayed with a lot of emphasis on his penis, it is surely Jacob Zuma? From his ‘machinegun’ song to his (self-embraced) reputation as a womanizer and a traditional male, he has played a large role in the creation of this image. Conversely, it can be argued that therefore a picture of Zuma-with-his-pants-off is NOT art -precisely because it is so much reality. Where is the artists’ imagination? What does he add?
But boy, is Brett Murray an artist. In juxtaposing the sexual traditional male Zuma with the revolutionary people’s leader Zuma, he has created something so daring, so controversial, and so true, that South Africa is bustling with debate, emotion, and even violence, as a result. The governing party and the presidency, who could have stayed quiet and make it go away, attracted worldwide publicity to the painting by their outraged press statement and court case. A black church leader called for the artist to be stoned. Someone threw paint over the painting. Whites from Cape Town to Ventersdorp started writing and phoning in really racist comments. This was fun.
Then a friend of mine wrote on Facebook “It is an insult to me to do this to my leader”. He attracted a dozen comments, which I could not totally understand since they were all in isiZulu, but I gathered they agreed with what he said. It got me thinking that traditional values of respect for elders and leaders, and embarrassment with regard to depictions of nakedness, especially when combined with elders, do not only exist in Ventersdorp and Ulundi. My friend, and most of his friends, are urbane, modern people, who can talk about sex, believe in human rights and press freedom, and can make fun of, and criticise Zuma or any other leader. They would not jail artists or forbid paintings. Still, they feel that showing this painting to the world is bad form and offensive.
I then started counting tweets labelled #Zumaspear and saw that few of those who expressed pro-artistic-freedom-outrage in the face of traditionalist outrage, were black/African. Most black tweets focused, not on the painting, but on the roughing up by Gallery security guards of a black paint-thrower. (Seemingly, there was a white -paint thrower too, -and he was not beaten up. Another interesting side track.) One tweet, -judging by the picture from a young African woman-, said that the painting was “rubbish that reminds us of Sara Baartman who was paraded naked across Europe.”
My friends’ Facebook comments and the tweets on #Zumaspear show that the notion that South Africa once was a (sexually) modern, progressive, country, where you could ridicule and embarrass leaders without anybody blinking an eye, and that we are now ‘failed’, or ‘going backward’, is absurd. It never was a modern country. Only an intellectual, urbanised, westernized, relatively small, class in this country is modern. African societies everywhere are in the 1950’s with regard to sexual politics and issues such as respect for authority, modesty and blasphemy. Many whites, too, especially in non-artistic, non-intellectual and rural spheres of life, would be equally outraged, and probably more violent, at sexually explicit images of Boer generals, Jan Smuts or FW de Klerk. And, remember, FW dumped Marieke to commit adultery with someone else’s wife. (OK so he did marry her later, but then again, so does Zuma.). The only reason why conservative whites are not outraged at this painting of the president, is because it is a black president.
And what would we say, if an artist had painted such a picture of Nelson Mandela? Or a female black leader?
Go, Brett Murray! In as much as an artist has engaged the conservative establishment and provoked national debate, this is not deterioration -it is progress. Blacks are even going to galleries now! Granted, they are marching rather than visiting, but even that is progress. This is how progress happens.
Every second, there is more progress on Twitter. One black tweep wants input from black male visual artists, a wonderful request (come on black male visual artists, we haven’t heard from you yet, I think?) Another black tweep opines, rather maturely and to the point, that a President ‘who lets it all hang out’ is the problem, not the artist depicting him. Zuma should step down, because he, not the artist, embarrasses public opinion. A lot of other black tweeps want attention to revert back to school books, toilets in poor areas, employment. I read a whole lot of creative, constructive, forward-thinking inputs. I see no Taliban, there is no police or military action. Not the artist, but the defacers were arrested. The ANC goes to court, as it should. That is what the court is for. And the painting,damaged or not, shoots up in value.
To finish, here is what Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, a newspaper with a large black readership, has to say. ‘(some of us at the paper) wanted the image to lead the arts section, but too many people objected on grounds that ranged from us being a family paper to concerns about dignity and cultural values. We put the image inside and ran a funny version on page 1, its indignity coverend by a price tag.’ She continues: ‘(SA) is a sexually aware, satirically sussed and progressive country. At the same time, we are a traditional society with a president who is most well known for his many marriages. Our identity is not as simple as the cultural chauvinists and dignity dogmatists like to make out. Ours is, by design, a live and let live world.’
In the body of her article, Haffajee also states very clearly that ‘as journalists worth our salt’ we cannot condone, or be complicit, in censorship. So we don’t destroy pictures, we are not at the beck and call of the establishment. The fight between art, free thought, and power, is on, as it has always been. But that doesn’t mean anybody is going backward. Forward ever, backward never, as Lenin, the man whose pose the painted Zuma adopts, would say.