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24 April 2014 17:46 (South Africa)
South Africa

The Art and Artifice of Culture: A week to remember in SA's self image

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
sa week in culture

The past two weeks have been quite a time for art in South Africa – perhaps like no other such period in the country’s cultural history. After days of increasingly sharp, politicised criticism, a piece of political provocative art was disfigured by two men while it was hanging on exhibition in Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The Spear painting by Brett Murray, as virtually everyone now knows, depicts Jacob Zuma in a classic, stylised Leninesque revolutionary pose, but with his genitalia fully exposed – similarly to a notorious photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. The nudity should be read as a comment on Zuma’s vigorous intimate life, both in and out of marriage. Once the painting had been reported in the media, the ANC and national and party president Jacob Zuma went to court to demand Murray’s work be withdrawn from exhibition and that the City Press newspaper that had published it on its website in full, with no fig leaves, enjoined from continuing to host it on its website.

Then, in the midst of that court hearing, the president’s lawyer, Gcina Malindi, broke down tearfully as he recalled his personal indignities of apartheid in the process of explaining the loss of dignity inflicted upon black South Africans by apartheid. Was this a clever courtroom trick or was it a legitimately vulnerable, humanising moment on the part of a man who had himself been a defendant in the Delmas Treason Trial, the marathon courtroom drama that was one of the last epic courtroom dramas of the old regime.

In the current court action, the judge chairing the hearing had determined that the office of the president, as opposed to the man in it, did not have a dignity to be impugned, although the question of whether a person’s constitutionally protected dignity can be denigrated by a satirical painting has been left unanswered at this point. And on this same day, one of the three judges hearing this case had posed the virtually unanswerable question of Malindi: how can a South African court lock the cyber-universe’s barn door after the digital horse has bolted and is now both everywhere and nowhere in particular.

Addressing that first point – the one of the inherent dignity of high office – on Sunday, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee wrote in an open letter to the president’s daughter: “Would I publish the image again knowing what I do now? Probably not. But here’s the rub. I would not do so because he is hurt or because you are hurt. That, for me, is the price tag of high office. Presidents deserve a personal dignity, though their office does not have that right. But to quote Tselane Tambo, ‘leaders have to inspire the reverence they seek.’ For the second question, of course, that one has long been answered by the power of the internet.”

In a thoughtful column in Business Day last week, Chris Thurman drew on the psychology of Shakespearean characters to paint Jacob Zuma as a man who has inadvertently given away the store, revealing a problematic inner Zuma, precisely by virtue of this attack on the artist. But the court battle, as opposed to the fighting about the court battle has now been indefinitely postponed.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, after first heedlessly making light of South Africa’s need to attract foreign investment from the West and international financial institutions, then to show his party’s heft in the domestic public space, called for a boycott of City Press because it had reported on and published the offending painting on its website.

This, in turn, led to a social media-driven campaign for people to buy multiple copies of City Press on 27 May to demonstrate their opposition to such a boycott. Mantashe’s boycott call almost certainly upped the ante in this struggle over the right of an artist to produce images and other types of art works that satirise, insult, attack or accuse public officials of improprieties or worse. Of course the next round happens if a planned march on the Goodman Gallery actually takes place on Tuesday, 29 May.

But questions go well beyond whether a painting like The Spear represents a fair but provocative use of artistic freedom or is a summoning up of the nation’s racial demons and an infraction of African cultural norms. It has now become a decision as to whether it undermines this country’s hard-won constitutional order or is simply a cynical use of the emotive power of Murray’s painting, the artist, the Goodman Gallery and the City Press as red herrings to deflect growing national annoyance or worse about the inability of the current government to deliver on its promises.

Now, however, all of these almost seem besides the point. What it clearly has done is to reveal a painful lack of understanding of the purpose of art and artistic freedom. And that is something that goes hand in hand with a much deeper lack of understanding on the part of many about the nature of symbols and meaning in artwork, as opposed to a straightforward political slogan. And that, of course, comes from the virtual lack of any real education in the arts and culture at most of the schools in the country.

Meanwhile, the University of Johannesburg was hosting a conference on the arts on 24-25 May that had brought together many of the country’s leading arts organizers with “arts is a business” and digital communications theorists and visionaries. The plan was to make the arts community understand itself a great deal better than it usually does – addressing such crucial concerns as what it must do to attract and hold audiences, sponsors, investors and supporters – even as it produces innovative work worth seeing or hearing. This comes as the old rules about building support no longer seem to apply and where the impact and importance of the economic weight of the arts sector is only dimly understood by most.

Paul Mashatile, minister of the national department of arts and culture (DAC) was supposed to kick off the event, but he, his deputy and the director–general in the department all had other business and so this honour was delegated to a director in the heritage division instead to read the minister’s speech. Given The Spear’s brooding but by then defaced presence, it seemed promising when the speech began with a quick nod to artistic freedom and freedom of speech – at this arts crowd applauded enthusiastically. But that particular door quickly clanged shut when the next sentence used language about the need for the arts and artists to respect the dignity of others as part of that freedom.

Unfortunately, the rest of this keynoter was a recitation of previously announced policy proposals – a national cultural skills academy, an arts and culture clearing house, new arts precincts around the country, and a travelling fund for arts programmes. An event like this could have created real engagement with the DAC’s core community, but it was unrepresented at much of the rest of this event, save for departmental advisor Korapetse Kgositsile’s brief participation on one of the panels.

The ministerial keynote contrasted with many other thought-provoking and engaging presentations, discussions and arguments. This included a presentation by Wits management professor Mike Muller, now working with Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission. Muller spoke to the planning commission’s lapse in taking the arts into account in their efforts so far – something that has overlooked the economic impact of the sector.

But he too echoed the usual refrain about the need for unity in the arts community that seems to come out of the mouths of far too many South Africans, as in the arts must come together as an interest group like long-distance trucking so as to pursue subsidies and tax incentives. On the other hand, it was recognition that the arts world is a real economic sector – and not just some poor but honest dancers and musicians – that creates real work.

Economist Avril Joffe’s presentation concentrated on what should be obvious – the arts and culture sector is not just a job-creation enterprise but, rather, at its best it generates opportunities. But it is equally important to remember that the job of the arts sector is not solely to create national social cohesion. Necessarily, it also generates debate about that society, provoking and challenging comfort zones. Joffe argued that it is time to stop talking about the arts sector as something that must be weaned off government support in a search for some holy grail of “sustainability”.

Business Arts South Africa’s Michelle Constant then noted that despite its real impact on the country’s economy, arts funding represents a mere 10% of sports funding. Curiously, by the time this conference had opened, there had already been more than 108 million internet hits on The Spear debate, something that could convert into about R25-million worth of advertising spending. Nevertheless, there was a need for more clarity about what the arts community expects from potential sponsors and supporters – and what those interests can hope to get from the arts, especially given an ongoing shift from community social responsibility support to funding from marketing budgets – where the bean counters rather than the do-gooders hold sway. For Constant, sustainability is not just about money in an era that requires much more adaptive resilience.

Later sessions tried to situate the arts community in terms of the emerging economic landscape of the 21st century – virtually force-feeding a recognition of the changes and challenges about to or already washing over the arts economy. Business development consultant and futurist Mike Freedman’s presentation, for example, was an effort to transform the discussion – rather than speak about South Africa, Freedman challenged attendees to talk about city regions, arguing that countries are “artificial”, while city regions are “real” as hubs of prosperity and opportunities – as well as slums.

Freedman cited research that nearly one in 10 employees of cities are in the creative economy writ large – “we come for the money, we look for fulfilment.” Freedman’s presentation, of course, was a reach back to the long tradition of sociologists like Max Weber and Edward Banfield who found the city as the engine of broader societal change turning immigrants into modern men and women.

If Freedman’s presentation was optimistic and visionary – no Blade Runner dystopias here if the town planners, investors and artists get it right, Rhodes academic Harry Dugmore offered a “what may happen if we don’t watch out” presentation. He asked conferees what they were going to do in the face of the rapidly rising young African middle class when six of 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa – but that the group does not include South Africa.

Given current economic and social trends in this country, would South Africa (and its arts and culture sector) miss out on Africa’s new growth in the future? Moreover, as countries around the world are generally lowering their national Gini coefficients (the ratio describing relative inequality in an economy), South Africa has now risen to the top of the chart – the wrong place to be. Moreover, only some 41% of the country’s citizens have a job, versus 70% in the US, for example.

Grocott’s Mail general manager and digital media specialist Steve Kromberg then led conference attendees into a consideration of the emerging digital universe that will further set things in new directions. As “rip, mix and burn” behaviour and technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous for anything electronic, arts organisations will increasingly be shifting to a freemium universe, a world where downloading information is as frictionless as possible, and a society where crowd sourcing via websites like “Greater Good” will become an increasingly common fundraising tool.

Kromberg also argued the anticipated growth in the African internet capacity – up to 12 times today’s capacity by the end of 2013, if all goes well, will be the start of a fundamental change in this country’s internet environment. By the end of 2013, too, there may be 10 million internet users in South Africa, even if the mobile phone is the channel by which much of this happens. Arts organisations will have to take these changes to heart – and respond effectively – or be road kill.

Independent theatre impresario Deon Opperman then put many of these insights into context, as he described how he now builds audiences and support. Not everyone loves his work, but it is hard to argue with his success. Opperman, the former enfant terrible of the cultural world, has enthusiastically embraced the language and methodology of business forecasting, risk analysis and modelling to guide him in picking his dramatic productions and building audiences and rosters of backers.

Opperman’s key lesson seemed to be the need to be ruthless in building an electronic database and a community of supporters who can be the principal word of mouth and electronic distributors of memes endorsing creative works. Finally, he reminded the audience that sponsors are in it for their return too – it’s “nothing for nothing” in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world of arts sponsorship.

If this conference offered evidence of new thinking seeping into South Africa’s arts community, and an awareness of new risks as well as opportunities, the official opening of the newly completed Soweto Theatre om Friday night in the Jabulani area, after years of planning and then building, has the potential to reshape thoroughly the entertainment landscape in the greater Johannesburg area. This will be particularly true if the urban renewal and building plans for the Jabulani area and its nearby shopping mall happen.

On the opening night, there were those speeches by the arts and culture minister and Johannesburg’s new mayor, some singing and dancing – and an extended performance poem by struggle era (and former bank robber) “people’s poet” Mzwahke Mbuli. Mbuli found a way to connect this new complex with dozens of famous – and a few infamous – people to have come from Soweto.

There was one slightly awkward moment with Winnie Madikizela Mandela sitting front and centre, when Mbuli chose to remember Dr Abu Baker Asvat, the physician who was killed after tending to Stompei Seipei – himself fatally injured by the so-called Mandela Football Club.

The theatre managers elected to open with The Suitcase, a drama developed by director James Ngcobo from Es’kia Mphahlele’s classic short story. The Suitcase had actually been performed at the Market Theatre several years ago and the play itself is a rather sombre affair – concerning galling poverty, a dead baby and a death in prison – rather than the celebratory.

Friends do say, however, that the second night, featuring a performance by Mali’s best-known musical export, Salif Keita, was a more exuberant event.

Hopefully, audiences will be challenged by works that build on the township theatre tradition that, many years earlier came from works by Gibson Kente and Sam Mhangwani like How Long, Blame Yourself and Unfaithful Woman. These plays ran in Soweto’s community halls as well as in downtown venues like Dorkay House, which helped give birth to Todd Matsikiza’s now-revered King Kong.

Years later, the township protest theatre movement carried forward through playwrights such as Matsemela Manaka and Mbongeni Ngema who, along with many others, then saw their work on the stages of the Market Theatre once it opened in 1976.

The real challenge for this newest of South Africa’s theatres is when its management confronts the same questions now faced by Murray, the Goodman Gallery and the attendees at the University of Johannesburg’s “Art in the Creative Economy” conference. Will this Soweto Theatre be true to the township’s reputation and history as a cauldron of artistic expression in favour of greater artistic freedom – even if this ends up in stark opposition to the regime of the day? Will this new theatre be able to find an audience and seek out funding to avoid being a white elephant – as its managers struggle to find its backers and sponsors?

And finally, will it encourage new, exciting works that energise and enlighten its audiences – and then those beyond Soweto – on the conditions in which its residents live, and have come from – as well as their aspirations for the future?

Or will it suffer the fate of other once-vibrant cultural institutions that have sunk into a kind of sad, creative torpor in recent years? Friday night at least was a time for hope and anticipation. DM


Read more:

  • As in Hamlet, Zuma betrays himself in his moral outrage, Chris Thurman in Business Day.
  • Gibson Kente from the Gale Contemporary Black Biography website.
  • The Role of Culture in the Process of Reconciliation in South Africa by Zakes Mda at the CSVR website.
  • Art in the Creative Economy conference papers at the Arts and Culture Trust website.
  • Soweto Theatre aims to foster township's cultural revolution at the Guardian.
  • Soweto Theatre Built In South Africa's Most Famous Township at the Huffington Post.
  • The great Spear debate: The art of criticism seems to be emotionally selective at City Press.
  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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