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I hope the Film and Publications Board will not classify this article as adult material, for its intent is to contribute to an atypical genre of the arts – post-colonial discourse. I pray that no religious fanatic curses my pen. I also hope no anti-racism charlatan will be tempted to report my portfolio to human rights authorities alleging hate speech.
After all, this is art, and like all forms of expression, it is protected by the constitution.
Like a novice artist receiving his first award, this essay might be long-winded and incoherent. After all, art can be a jumble of ideas and ideals as willed by God and protected by supreme laws.
What was supposed to be a satiric representation of the leadership of SA, as Brett Murray refers to his notorious exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, has turned into an airborne virus inducing frenzy among millions infected by it. Racial lines have been drawn and divisions amplified.
Defending his painting in court last Tuesday, Murray said he never meant to offend anyone and his art was “an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy”.
As with all true works of art, there are many ways to interpret The Spear. Artists are divided. Some believe it’s a masterpiece while others pay less regard to it, arguing it is just a poor copy of the famous portrait of Lenin. More dangerously, this modified picture of Lenin lends itself to the racial narrative embedded in Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious photograph, Man in Polyester Suit.
Politicians are also divided on the meaning of The Spear. Some believe it demeans the president, an important symbol of our democratic republic. It reduces the president to an object, the other.
We have all witnessed the emotional rebuttal of Murray’s work.
What sinks Murray’s explanation of his intention is that The Spear is part of a collection that ridicules the ruling party. A visitor to the exhibition may emerge with one conclusion: there is nothing left of the ANC. It is just a shadow of itself; having sold itself to the highest bidder or been destroyed by corruption, greed and black economic empowerment.
Seen in the context of the entire exhibition and what it represents, one understands the political reaction. This is not a parody but an anti-ANC manifesto.
Other politicians and commentators have, however, welcomed the exhibition. They have said things like “The ANC deserves it”, “This is how we know the president” and so on. Apart from their affirmation of the message contained in the exhibition, these observers have cited freedom of expression as the reason this artist must be allowed to express his views about the ANC.
One cannot miss comments like: “Can’t we get on with the business of service delivery and other important national issues and drop this trivial issue? This is just a painting, after all.” Well, bad luck to the latter.
The issue of image construction is equally important and it should be prioritised.
Then we have ordinary people who have varying interpretations of The Spear.
Culturally, some Africans don’t believe sex and sexuality are subjects for open discussion.
Children grow up knowing never to imagine sex and sexuality involving adults lest they invite punishment for their evil thoughts.
Same goes for many Christians – we know how many have criticised Murray’s painting, including the gentleman who led its “rearrangement”. He also said religion forbids human beings from denigrating one another in public, so he took it upon himself to correct The Spear.
Another cultural aspect cited by those opposed to the painting is that in Africa, painters and sculptors don’t show genitals when they construct images of humans, yet one can make out the gender of the subject from other features of the art. Clearly the points of reference differ, thus emboldening perceptions that The Spear is culturally flawed.
People conclude therefore that The Spear, apart from its politics, is part of the narrative of cultural imperialism. Of course, those with liberal ideals disagree and demand of society to be “civilised”, appreciate art and respect freedom of expression – its offensive meaning to others notwithstanding.
Let us talk about sex and racism using The Spear-Man in Polyester Suit axis.
Centuries ago, the penis represented men and breasts represented women. Many historical buildings in Europe are decorated with gigantic structures and statues with hanging penises and breasts. There are many classical paintings bearing naked subjects. Le Penseur (The Thinker) by Auguste Rodin is one of them. Therefore, The Spear is not necessarily groundbreaking, not least because it is a copy of a painting of Lenin photo and a grotesque allegory of Mapplethorpe’s Man in Polyester Suit. Prominent Westernerrs such as Da Vinci, Freud and Walt Whitman have all exploited sex to build their profiles.
In the past two centuries, race and prejudice joined the creel of symbols that the penis represents: evil (biblical myths in Genesis); life (procreation instrument); status and masculinity (the Romans are said to have considered penis size when promoting soldiers); biology (urinating), etc. In the past three decades, the penis has come to represent death – it spreads Aids, syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. It is also notorious for fertilising progeny who wander helplessly without the love and care of the father.
Colonialism redefined the penis and black people’s sexuality in general, with Europeans taking a keen interest in the “different” and “extraordinary” genitalia of the natives. Further, the penis became an instrument of violence with systemic rapes of colonised women either as part of punishment or just experimenting with the other.
South Africans remember the sad story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, who was stolen from these shores for display in London in 1810. She became an object of curiosity among Europeans enthralled by her “unusual physical features”, especially her genitals. She would later be dissected and studied in laboratories by “civilised” men who wanted to understand why her sexual organs were different from what Europeans knew. From this and thousands of other stories of Africans who were taken to laboratories for experimentation developed a theory correlating intelligence with private parts.
Anthropologists and scientists mobilised evidence to justify subjugating “uncivilised” black people whose sexual exploits, in their racist view, were no different to those of wild African fauna.
Equally, Europeans are curious about the private parts of black men. Writing in A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, David M Friedman paraphrases one William Lee Howard who prejudicially concluded at the turn of the 20th century that “it is that large black penis that renders any chance of civilising the black man absolutely absurd.”
Besides Friedman, hundreds of other people exposed the racial undertones of Mapplethorpe’s celebrated photo-artistry. For example, Kobena Mercer noted: “His highly erotic treatment of the black male body seems to be supported by a whole range of racist myths about black sexuality.”
Closer to home, Frantz Fanon concluded that to white people, black people are not human as “…the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.”
Now that The Spear is cleansed by the two artists who meticulously rearranged it on Tuesday, let’s call upon the higher powers – through the artistic prowess of Ray Charles – to please help us all “in a troubled world… keep hatred from the mighty and the mighty from the small”.
n Ngcaweni is a commentator and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.