Opinionista Anthony Posner 6 February 2014

‘The Spear’ reappears

Roughly a year later, The Spear has reappeared, this time within the (relative) safety of the covers of a book. It may not raise the same uproar, but it still raises all the same questions – and perhaps a few more.

Salman Rushdie, a man who got himself into a spot of more bother than Brett Murray, wrote the following: “We fear this in ourselves, our boundary-breaking, rule disapproving, shape-shifting, transgressive, trespassing shadow-self, the true ghost in our machine. Not in the afterlife, or in any improbably immortal space, but here on earth the spirit escapes the chains of what we know ourselves to be. It may rise in wrath, inflamed by its captivity, and lay reason’s world to waste.” (Fury, 2001)

Most people are incapable of transcending this fear. But there are individuals, usually artists, who sometimes manage to do it. Salman Rushdie in Britain, Ai Weiwei in China, Pussy Riot in Russia and our very own Brett Murray in South Africa. I can hear the condescending guffaws…are you kidding me? Brett Murray in the same category as Ai Weiwei?? Well, if he isn’t quite there yet, he is certainly moving in the same direction.

Brett Murray was nurtured by his mother to stand out. “Dress-up was always interesting at the Murray household. I went to the Jewish Menorah Nursery school in Pretoria. I am as Jewish as The Pope. My mom, in her dark wisdom, dressed me up as an Arab for the Purim festival and ushered me in. Politically shrewd and challenging…or just plain insensitive? Not sure. Needless to say…I was hurled out.”

It is evident that there was no turning back.

The “Brett Murray” monograph charts the trajectory that led to The Spear, and the essays inevitably tend to focus on the ANC’s response to the phallic artwork. This is a pity, and a bit of a lost opportunity, since Murray can be quite a complex artist, but putting this to one side, the monograph is still a breath of fresh air, in a society that is fetid with the stench of censorship.

Steven Dubin’s opening essay has been culled from his book “Spear-heading debate”, and it does seem this was a short-cut on Jacana’s behalf. Of course, South African art publications are usually not financially viable, as few people are either interested enough or wealthy enough to buy them, but taking this into account, Jacana should be congratulated for reproducing so many images of Murray’s extensive oeuvre.

The good news is that you can now buy your very own, smaller (some women say that size isn’t everything) copy of The Spear, before it suffered defacement and decockment; it appears on pg 267, and in the cold light of day, one might wonder what all the fuss was about.

Of course, when you take the book home, there is still a chance that an ANC rally will miraculously appear beyond your razor-wire, demanding that you and your new purchase be torn to shreds. If this does happen, please ignore it and continue watching SABC news.

But imagine that one day, after reflecting on the merits of pg 267, you suddenly admit to yourself something that you have always feared. You now concur with the Mthembu/ Mantashe/ Nzimande spin; yes, you are ” a racist”. You feel guilty and decide to confess your sin at Luthuli House. But don’t worry; instead of a few “Hail Marys”…you have only got one “Hail to The Thief”.

Sometimes one wonders whether it all actually happened…

For example, about six months after “Hail to the Thief II”, at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Blade Nzimande (South African Communist Party, General Secretary) actually called for a law preventing people from insulting the president. He said that Murray’s very existence threatened to undo social cohesion and unity in South Africa. Zuma’s supporters and decent black South Africans would sooner or later reach boiling point.

“It’s like we don’t have a culture. I’m Jewish, you know, I’m Afrikaans, but if you’re black African, you are not supposed to have a culture, and that’s a problem.” He concluded that “we are being undermined by whites”.

One wonders whether the Jewish reference had emerged because on the SACP “Murray” file, it stated that young Brett had attended a Jewish nursery school? Or perhaps, more likely, it was a pot-shot at Liza Essers and Zapiro, both actually Jewish, and both involved in the dissemination of anti-Zuma imagery?

In a sculpture entitled “Tribal Elder”, Murray had linked the ANC to Stalin, so one might conclude that Nzimande was just fulfilling this prophecy/reality.

At the launch of the book in Cape Town, Murray said: “That some temporary custodians of our constitutional democracy saw fit to jackboot through a gallery space and call for the burning of an exhibition and suppress a newspaper’s editor independence and by proxy attempt to censure the ideas of artists, playwrights, poets, film makers, social commentators, stand-up comics and the like – and coming so soon after the Apartheid regime’s endeavour to do the same – was eye-opening, reckless and ultimately chilling.

“The silence of those within the echelons of power when there were public incitements made for the killing of some of us, and where private death threats were made public, renders them all complicit in the attempts to subvert the constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression, and in the brutal suppression of dissent.”

I went to the opening of the exhibition and mistook Vavi for Zuma re: The Spear, so I had failed to see the painting as a big deal. But on leaving the Goodman, I still murmured in the direction of Liza Essers that “The ANC will close this down…” and Liza carried on talking to her friends.

Had Murray, all the way from laid-back Cape Town, miscalculated the intensity of the ANC’s anger, or was he aware that all hell would break loose in Johannesburg? I would imagine that his transgressive spirit was in full flow and he just thought,”Fuck it. I’ll do it.”

His detractors (including some fellow jealous artists with much less courage and much less talent) tended to see the exhibition as a publicity stunt aimed at enriching Murray and the Goodman Gallery. I don’t think that it is worth replying to these allegations, but I do know that the  “artworks” of his detractors will inevitably be condemned to the bottom of history’s dustbin.

Anthony Julius, in his book Transgressions: The Offences of Art (2002, a decade before “Hail to The Thief”), writes: “Politically resistant works are exceptional. There is no place for them in two contrasting kinds of state. There is the state whose citizens take for granted, correctly, that they order their own lives, and that institutions exist to serve them. Politically resistant artworks are not needed in such a state. And there is the state where these assumptions are not made and in which politically resistant artworks are not possible. Such works will be exceptional, then either because of the acquiescence of accommodating states or the harshness of repressive states. One kind of state is usually too hard to offend; the other kind of state is usually too quick to respond.”

“Hail to The Thief II” was thus an “exceptional” exhibition and it revealed that the South African post-Apartheid state (three months prior to Marikana) was repressive; the sculpture that best illuminated this, was a golden knuckle-duster with “VIVA” etched in red, ready to be punched into your face.

Via email, I asked Murray whether anybody, anywhere, had ever produced a painting with an overtly political (non-religious) theme, that had been more controversial than The Spear. He replied: “Not sure. I might be the benchmark. Fuck. Never thought of that.”

Just 85 days after The Spear was vandalised, Marikana occurred. If civil society had boldly supported Murray at the time of The Spear, it is possible that the ANC would have got a wake-up call. And the ruling party may have handled Marikana less arrogantly and a lot more carefully.

The sad truth is that very few people in the South Africa arts community and beyond were publicly willing to support Murray. Whether they were paralysed by fear, or just plain disinterested, is debatable. My guess is that freedom of expression is not at the top of most people’s list, and as a result, South Africans have chillingly got the democracy that they want and deserve.

The Goodman Gallery was, without doubt, paralysed by fear. After the ANC organised a “protest” march along Jan Smuts Ave, the gallery closed for a week. Liza Essers received death threats, and to placate the mob, she removed BRETT MURRAY: HAIL TO THE THIEF II advertising sign from the gallery’s window and replaced it with THE GOODMAN GALLERY RESPECTS YOUR RIGHT TO PROTEST. I informed the gallery that this was a bad decision. After all, much of the exhibition was a satire on phony revolutionary fervour (“Viva,” etc.), and that the gallery’s new sign/ advert was not only ridiculous but undermined the show.

At the time of the ANC rally, I went into the crowd, and supported Brett Murray. I was pushed by one ANC official, but nobody threatened me, either physically or verbally. After all, this was Johannesburg. Not Harare. I was not carted off to be imprisoned and tortured.

In the midst of the rally, I held aloft a copy of the front-page of The Times, with the headline “Brett Murray: ‘The Racist’”. It highlighted his work as an anti-Apartheid student artist. Perhaps the inverted commas, on either side of “The Racist” confused some of the less grammatically informed within the ANC, and if so, punctuation might have helped me survive the rally intact.

The monograph, moreover, includes an essay written by Roger Van Wyk focusing on Murray’s anti-Apartheid poster works from the 1980s. I hope that Blade Nzimande reads it.

The ANC’s treatment of Murray was clearly an explicit threat to anybody who might think about stepping out of line…  if you are transgressive, we will hunt you down. For the most part, such warnings are unnecessary, particularly with regard to the visual art’s community; in a post-Apartheid liberated country, where political correctness rules supreme, there is virtually no desire to undermine the status quo. Freedom of expression is usually viewed as an irrelevancy, and if it is a problem, artists can always get by with a bit of self-censorship.

But The Spear has served its purpose; it was, after all, a manipulated political drama and was aimed at those within The ANC who were considering whether Zuma’s sexual mores made him suitable for re-election. Zuma, of course, won this battle and as a result, Exclusive Books can now safely remove the transparent plastic “condomised” wrapper from The Brett Murray monograph.

Viva, etc. DM


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