The varied reactions to the The Spear by Brett Murray will no doubt go down in the annals of history as one of the many important events that shaped our collective consciousness. This episode has among others highlighted the dichotomy that exists between the constitutionally enshrined rights of freedom of expression and human dignity. It has allowed us to once again engage in robust discussion about how we balance and give practical expression to the lofty ideals of freedom, constitutionality, morality and, yes, political interests. This is both the burden and responsibility of freedom. It is not for sissies.
The artistic depiction of important figures in the nude or in sexually explicit positions is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for as long as human beings have been engaged in the activity of artistic expression. Evidence of this abounds in the Ancient hieroglyphs of Egypt, Kush and Monamotapa, great African civilisations of old. The phallic symbol depicted in the design of the pyramids and obelisks, the iconic carrying of a stick or “kierie” by African men even in contemporary African societies is yet another openly displayed phallic symbol of virility and power.
Male virility is held in high esteem and strongly encouraged and flaunted in African societies. I say this because there is a disturbing and disingenuous narrative by the “song and dance brigade” suggesting that the open artistic expression of nudity is somehow “un-African” and foreign to African culture, whatever that means. This is not true. In fact, Africans have always admired and celebrated the naked human form and its sexuality and continue to do so.
You only have to go to KwaZulu-Natal or Swaziland or even Venda to witness the celebration of Umkhosi Womhlanga (the Spring-reed festival In Kwazulu and Swaziland) or Domba (the coming of age of young maidens in Venda) to see that nudity is nothing strange or shameful amongst Africans.
The concept of the beauty and celebration of the naked human form and its sexuality is one of Africa’s exports to Europe and the rest of the world. This is evidenced by the depiction of even their deities in the nude because such was the reverence attached to the naked human form before the advent of conservative Calvinist missionary Christian values. We must therefore attempt to understand the reasons for the emergence of this interesting narrative within the current debate about The Spear.
There is no doubt that the depiction of President Jacob Zuma in a revolutionary Leninist pose with caricatured exposed genitals is designed to create controversy. Controversy is usually courted by those who wish to say something about the status quo in any given scenario. It is meant to stimulate thought and create discussion about issues which affect society at a particular point. This, presumably, was Murray’s intention when he conceived of this portrait. A perfectly normal artistic motivation, under normal circumstances.
But South Africa is not normal in the sense that we are still in the process of understanding how we give practical expression to our constitutionally guaranteed rights within a context, which is still so heavily charged with unresolved issues of economic inequality, historical racial polarisation and current government ineptitude and corruption. It is a particularly flammable situation that calls for caution and wisdom.
Yet it is precisely within this potentially explosive context that our well-stipulated Constitution must be tested. It is precisely when we are unmasked and our true natures are exposed that we can foster an authentic understanding of the application of these rights. It is under these very abnormal conditions that our abnormality must be highlighted and pointed out to us so that we may know our weaknesses, so that we can fix things. Until then the Constitution is nothing but a painted fire unable to give us warmth when it counts.
It must be made clear that the outrage is less about a painting and race, in and of itself, than it is about political commentary which will make those against whom it is directed respond in a – dare I say it? – proportional manner.
This painting is a comment about Jacob Zuma and his questionable morality, but it is also about his leadership, his politics and by implication also about those who follow and support him. These connections cannot be divorced in the minds of those who regard this as an attack on the symbol of their collective solidarity.
You may wonder how I come to the conclusion that the anger displayed is proportional to the mere artistic expression of a lowly painter. Well, satirical artistic expression is a very sophisticated form of communication. Its subtle and multi-layered messages are meant to speak to an equally sophisticated audience. This would be an educated, usually wealthier and therefore influential grouping. Indeed, this would be a significantly small group of people given the size of the population, but they would be the most economically influential grouping in the country and therefore a very powerful constituency.
This clandestine relationship amongst the elite is an intriguing network of power that is cleverly mobilised by satire against the current ruling elite, a clearly dangerous political threat for that elite. The stakes are very high. Sophisticated, intellectual artistic expression is the weapon of choice used in the political battle by the educated political minority.
The ruling elite understand this all too well, and will use the political arsenal at their disposal to combat the mobilisation of the elite. They will use long-standing, unresolved racial tensions. They will hijack misinformed ideas of cultural identity and manipulate the real economic discomfort of the masses to generate sympathy.
The ruling elite, through creating a well-calculated victimhood around Jacob Zuma, through emotionalising the debate, are consolidating their power. That is why there are calls to boycott City Press, calls for marches and weeping attorneys. All this is an attempt to retaliate against a very powerful political statement by the intellectual minority, which consists of people from all race groups. However, it is an attack all the same, a very powerful attack.
I contend therefore, that the ruling elite are aware of their waning support amongst South Africans of all colours because of their administrative ineptitude, just as they are aware of the very real threat of being unseated at the upcoming ANC elective conference in Mangaung. They saw this as an opportunity to mobilise support for their selfish cause by using the legitimate emotions of the masses.
The masses are rightfully angry because they are not being serviced as they expected and indeed were promised by the ruling elite. They have been manipulated by a cunning group of leaders to re-direct their ire. The logical inconsistencies, misdirected anger and unreasonable arguments advanced in this debate have nothing to do with whether the Constitution is being misused by those that argue for Murray’s right to artistic expression or not. It is just an exercise in narrow political power consolidation. Yet again the black masses are being raped by selfish leaders. This will not go on forever.
Personally, I think this painting was in very bad taste and Murray was being gratuitous and vulgar. President Zuma deserves to be treated with dignity, which is his inalienable right as a human being. However, this does not give me the right to call for the banning of the painting or the victimisation of those who support him or the boycotting of newspapers who show the picture.
This is wrong. We have an opportunity here to deepen our understanding of what it means to be free. Freedom is not for sissies or cry-babies. DM