Nudity in art has been around for a very, very long time. And it is not merely confined to Western art. We find it in traditional African and Indian art too. Yet one painted image has upset the ANC more than kilolitres of outraged editorial ink. Why? J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
As a child I had the opportunity to become familiar with the treasures of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This was a long time before Sylvester Stallone had won an Oscar and made that building’s great steps and front courtyard world-famous in Rocky.
Even so, it was always with a sense of great expectation that visitors walked up those broad steps and on into its galleries. As you entered, the first thing you saw was a four metre-tall statue of Diana the huntress, by the early 20th century American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, done in the Roman classical bronze tradition. Then, further into the galleries, there was an astonishing painting by Peter Paul Reubens, depicting Prometheus having his liver picked at by a vulture after he had defied the gods and given fire to mankind.
The point of this quick art tour is that both Diana and Prometheus were without clothing. Well, okay, for the purists, Prometheus had a tiny fragment of textile that barely concealed a square centimetre of his genitals. Other than that – nada, nix. Their respective genders were obvious to anyone with eyes.
As is, too, the nudity of the great Hellenistic sculpture, Laocoön, Goya’s Maja (at least in the attire-less version), Michelangelo’s David and Titian’s The Venus of Urbino, among many others.
More recently, the nude has been used as an aesthetic bludgeon – the bohemian’s thumb in the eye of the Parisian bourgeoisie, as with Manet’s Dejeuner sur l'Herb, with its two well-dressed gentlemen and a pulchritudinous young woman, undressed and reclining suggestively upon a picnic blanket.
Or consider Bernie Searle’s Colour Me and Snow White, contemporary works mixing nudity with historical references to slavery so as to interrogate coloured identity – or even Stephen Cohen’s notoriously uncomfortable performance pieces, using his virtually naked body to speak about the plight of the South African homeless or the Holocaust.
But bare skin is not just something found in supposedly decadent Western-style, Eurocentric art, despite growing protestations that a work that shows intimate body parts is somehow degrading or inflammatory.
Recently after viewing Brett Murray’s now-infamous exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, I went to the inaugural exhibition of the newly opened Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein. Among the African art now on display, there are numerous examples of totemic statuary as well as ritualised objects that have obvious, if stylised, genitalia. Moreover, there are also two large ritual drums – one very clearly female and the other just as clearly male. And there is nothing subtle about either.
Further afield, in previous years, I have attended several traditional Reed Dances in Swaziland – complete with its near-nudity there as well. If showing skin, body parts or nudity is a profoundly consequential issue, how to explain all of these contrary examples?
What is it about this exhibition by Brett Murray that so infuriates this government? In fact, the exhibition has all kinds of critical signs and portents, not just the one picture that has become so newsworthy.
In the gallery, Murray has placed items that, once you look at them for more than a second or two, quickly resolve into an unrelenting critique of the greed and rapaciousness of the governing party. For example, married to martyred struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu’s name are words calling the liberation struggle an opportunity to harvest high-priced whiskey and luxury vehicles. Oversized gold communist party-style member badges have been re-branded with dollar and yen signs at the centre. The poster of the ANC logo is first overprinted with the words “for sale”, and then that is cancelled out with the note that it has now been “sold”. The liberation struggle’s iconic raised fist salute is reversed into a symbol of the iron fist of repression.
Murray is clearly conversant with the statement by early 20th century Dada movement theorist and artist Marcel Duchamp – the man who married a urinal with some used bicycle handlebars to the consternation of many in creating a stylised bull’s head from leftover rubbish – that “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” For Murray, it seems, art can even be both – or appropriation – if one is clever enough.
But Murray is no rightwing racist crank, after all. After studying at the University of Cape Town, his work has been exhibited widely in South Africa and Europe and he has worked with a range of other artists on a variety of projects that have included work on Robben Island and multimedia events around Cape Town.
Over the years, his exhibitions include shows like a White Boy Sings the Blues, I love Africa, Sleep Sleep, Crocodile Tears – and his first Hail to the Thief show in 2010. His works have been seen at the Cuban Biennial and some of his works were also part of the exhibition Liberated Voices, Contemporary Art from South Africa that was installed at New York City’s Museum for African Art, as well as numerous shows in Europe.
But Murray’s works – despite a hope for a more open, liberated South Africa – increasingly reflect the thoughts of a more disillusioned, increasingly angry artist who sees the promise of 1994 being frittered away in the feeding frenzy at the trough.
In explaining Murray’s cultural aesthetic and critique of South Africa, it is worth quoting at some length what playwright and cultural activist Mike van Graan wrote of Murray’s 2010 exhibition, Hail to the Thief. Van Graan had noted, “When the emotional dust settles, and the politically correct (or rather, the politically opportunistic – where blackness is appropriated as a smokescreen under which to pursue and justify dubiously-gotten gain) knee-jerk reactions subside, the realisation dawns that Murray is but giving artistic expression to what even the ruling party’s closest political allies have been vociferous about.”
“Murray’s President and Sons Ltd or his Hail to the Thief iconography echoes Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s anger last August when he was particularly scathing about the ArcelorMittal Sishen mine deal in which family and friends of President Jacob Zuma received shares worth millions. ‘We’re headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich’ said Vavi and continued that just like the hyena and her daughters eat first, the chief of state’s family eats first in a predator state.”
“Vavi’s anger, frustration and disappointment expressed in ‘We have to intervene now to prevent South Africa from becoming a state where corruption is the norm and no business can be done with government without first paying a corrupt gatekeeper,’ reflects the anger and frustration themed through this exhibition. Murray was a participating artist in the Arts Festival 86: Towards a People’s Culture of which I served as co-ordinator and which was banned before its start for constituting ‘a threat to the national security’ of the apartheid state. Little did the artists in that event believe that less than 25 years later they would have to raise a flag again in protest, in anger and disillusionment against those in the new political and economic elite who now dishonour the struggle against apartheid injustice and the heroes of that struggle, with their corrupt, scandalous behaviour that spits on the half of our population who continue to live below the poverty line.”
Clearly, Murray’s work is work coming from an increasingly angry man, and probably a disillusioned one as well. But he is also someone who knows the power of words and even more of images – particularly when they can be turned back on themselves to illuminate the distortions occurring in Murray’s society. And an artist who understands that an image that resonates with many possibilities is particularly potent.
And so we come to the painting that caused all the trouble – The Spear. For the one or two people in South Africa who have not seen a reproduction of the work yet in the media, it features a silk-screen-like near-likeness of Jacob Zuma in a stylised heroic pose reminiscent of the famous propaganda poster of Vladimir Lenin, staring into the future, arm raised, calling for the defeat of the czar’s forces, or seizing the Winter Palace, or some other heroic, historic action.
In Zuma’s case, his head is framed mostly in red, his arm is posed downward, leading in the classic pose of a Baroque period cavalier or swordsman, and most importantly, of course – there is a healthy, hefty set of male genital organs depicted in some detail, located well outside his trousers.
But there are still other allusions and referrals within this picture. It also echoes that famous illustration of Barack Obama, the so-called Hope portrait, created by street artist Shepard Fairey back in 2008. The Spear is a complex collection of referents, some obviously drawn from historic images and some, too, referencing Zuma’s well-known sexual history – the multiple wives and girlfriends, and his nearly two dozen children. Even the work’s title can be read as a knowing reach-back to the ANC’s armed wing during the apartheid era, Umkonto weSizwe, The Spear of the Nation.
Some critics allege, however, that Murray is doing much more than authoring a sharp critique of Jacob Zuma, one that is consistent with the rest of his exhibition. For this argument, it is alleged there is a subliminal agenda on Murray’s part (and by anyone who defends him) that what is really being said is that black men are a kind of highly charged sexual “animal”, slaves to unbridled passions. Embracing the picture as legitimate political criticism means one is also embracing this racial dialectic as well.
Filmmaker and freelance journalist Gillian Schutte therefore argues:
“Let us unpack the The Spear from a racialised and colonial perspective, something that the art fraternity seems to be deliberately circumventing in their cry for freedom of expression over all else… The point, people, is this is not the president’s penis. It is the grotesquely huge black male ‘dick-ness’ that resides somewhere in the deep collective consciousness of the White psyche – a primal and savage ‘dick-ness’ that was entrenched about 500 years ago as a white supremacist plot to control the world of women and racism. A dick-ness that liberals are fond of saying they are over – that they no longer associate the ‘humungous animalistic dick theory’ to black men.”
“The Spear is most certainly an exposition not only on the white view of Zuma and his inability to measure up to leadership tenets as well as they would – it is also an indictment on how black men in general, in South Africa, are perceived through the white filter to not measure up when it comes to political, economic, and cultural power in a white-discourse-dominated society.”
In short, Schutte is arguing Murray’s painting is simply the newest in a long tradition of the dehumanising of black men, assigning to them the position of the bearer of unconscious, potent urges. Or, as Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness: “In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him – all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” And as VS Naipaul could write in A Bend in the River: “The rage of the rebels was like a rage against metal, machinery, wires, everything that was not of the forest and Africa.”
That’s strong stuff. Others, however, respond by saying, as veteran art journalist Michael Coulson, has it, that “In Zuma’s case, however, his own history makes his private life fair game. He may not have been found guilty of rape, but his attitude towards women is indefensible.”
Anton Harber, chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute, adds that that it is not about dehumanizing black men at all. Rather, Harber says: “The work is one of a number in Murray's exhibition which collectively make a strong protest against corruption, greed, nepotism and other issues of governance. It is a strong intervention, and I can see no reason why Murray should be bound by the ANC's notion of good taste or acceptability. Our Constitution protects our artists' rights to be rude, mocking, even disrespectful, and we should enjoy and appreciate that, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe especially when it makes us uncomfortable, as this is what we expect from our artists.”
But even if one grants Murray a kind of artistic “Scots verdict” – not proved – was the Goodman Gallery itself somehow engaged in a kind of sub rosa agenda of its own by exhibiting The Spear and the rest of the Hail to the Thief II installation? The Goodman Gallery is not just any art gallery, however. It has a solid pedigree from its support of anti-apartheid artists and freedom of intellectual and artistic expression during some very tough times.
The Goodman Gallery, since being established in the 1960s by Linda Goodman Givon, has showcased contemporary, provocative artworks that challenged the fundamental tenets of apartheid and nurtured a larger inter-racial community among artists and art lovers. It was also involved in the seminal Art Against Apartheid exhibition in 1985. Although it was a commercial gallery, it became part of the broad tradition of pioneering non-racial art programmes that included the Jubilee and Polly Street Art Centres, the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and the FUNDA and FUBA Centres.
A key part of its mission has been to identify, nurture and market, both nationally and internationally, emerging South African artists, not least such now-major figures as William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa and David Goldblatt. The Goodman Gallery has also brought international artists to South Africa to exhibit alongside local artists in order extend this dialogue, such as African-born artists Ghada Amer and Kader Attia, who confronted pre-Arab Spring North African politics, post-colonialism. African-American artists Hank Willis Thomas and Kara Walker have similarly been included in the gallery’s schedule over the years.
In recent years, the Goodman Gallery franchise has expanded from its northern Johannesburg base to include an outpost in the new CBD redevelopment zone, Art on Main, as well as a gallery in Cape Town, in addition to participation in international art fairs such as in Basel, Switzerland. Where in all this one can find a desire to destroy the presidency seems hard to fathom.
In the still-evolving furore, the South African president, the ANC, the ANC Youth League, the SA Communist Party, the ANC Women’s League, the Young Communist League, SADTU and various Cabinet officers have all argued the Goodman Gallery is part of a cabal to denigrate the president. To resolve the issue, the painting must be removed from the gallery, any newspapers printing the image of The Spear must be enjoined from doing so in print or electronically, and due apologies must be extracted from the conspirators. A court test is now pending.
In explaining the legal action being undertaken by the president’s office, Zuma advisor Mac Maharaj has told the media his office “is shocked and disgusted at the grotesque painting by Brett Murray depicting President Jacob Zuma in an offensive manner. We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.” Maharaj adds that Murray’s fatal failing has been to ignore the president’s right to dignity of person and office, warning that freedom carries a “deep responsibility” and that the right to freedom of expression is “not absolute.”
Maharaj added that he is “concerned that the painting perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the president.” As a result, such artists fail to express their disagreements in a cultured, civilised manner.
The problem is, of course, that artists like Murray see their role precisely as agents provocateur for social, political and intellectual criticism, a kind of national canary in the coal mine for freedom of expression, just as they did under apartheid. No one has explained why that function mysteriously vanished with the advent of non-racial political democracy. Or, in public policy terms, as Harber goes on to argue: “A presidential response would have been to rise above it, shrug it off and focus on more pertinent issues. One cannot escape a suspicion that it was really the commentary on governance that upset the ANC, and they are using this issue to distract attention from more pressing social and political issues.”
Van Graan extends the argument further, saying: “The most generous response one can make in reaction to the vitriolic assault on the art and Murray is to learn from our political leadership and ‘blame apartheid’. Blame apartheid for the arts illiteracy of the general public and current thought leaders who cannot distinguish between artistic metaphor and literal representation. Blame apartheid for the racist paradigm that informs the attacks on Murray simply because he is white without any effort to engage with the work as an expression of the moral decline of the ANC.”
Perhaps Murray and the gallery may ultimately benefit from this storm of criticism. The current owner of the gallery, Lisa Essers would probably agree that despite the dangers, this is the best publicity the gallery has enjoyed since an unnerving performance by Stephen Cohen at the opening of his show at Goodman Johannesburg. Maybe Esser will find a way to bring this artwork on to coffee cup coasters, limited edition prints, and other items. Maybe it will take off the way Munch’s The Scream has become an international commodity. That would be well and good, save for the potentially chilling effect of legal action against the artist, the gallery and those who would reproduce the offending image.
In the whole furore, however, one curious and possibly inconvenient fact has been overlooked in all this snarling at Murray, the gallery, the media and other unruly artists. Until just a short while ago, Mac Maharaj had found himself comfortably on the same side as the Goodman Gallery. A few years back, it was Maharaj who had used that same venue for the launch of Padraig O’Malley’s biography of Maharaj. What a difference a spear makes. DM
- Goodman Gallery at the city’s tourism website.
- Contemporary South African art – The Goodman Gallery at South Africa.net’s website.
- Brett Murray at the artist’s website.
- The President's Penis essay by critic Gillian Schutte at the SACSIS website.
- Review of Hail to the Thief, 2010 by Mike van Graan at the Brett Murray website.
- Singing the Post-Apartheid Blues, Kendall Geers’ review of the “White Boy Sings the Blues” exhibition.
- The penis picture, commercially speaking at the Mediaonline website.
- Open letter to Minister Lulu Xingwana from activists and civil society groupings.
- Various statements by opponents to this exhibition at the 20 May edition of Politics Web.
Photo: Two of the Brett Murray's exhibits at The Goodman Gallery.