It is not the president’s face on the portrait, but his dignity

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si South Africa Art Spat AP Controversy: A visitor to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg uses his hands to form what could be a codpiece on the controversial painting titled The Spear, done by South African artist Brett Murray. The ANC has said it intends to demand the removal of the painting, which has whipped up a storm of criticism. Picture: AP

A FEW days ago the name Brett Murray was unknown to me and many of those in my circles. We couldn’t care less.

He could have passed for some struggling, average artist at some obscure gallery in Joburg.

Today everyone knows him, thanks to having touched South Africans where you don’t dare touch them: their hearts.

With his portrait of President Jacob Zuma showing his private parts hanging out, Murray has opened a can of worms about the state of SA’s sexual behaviour, using its head of state as a starting point.

He has said something many of us have always wanted to say, but had neither the courage nor the verbal and artistic skills to say in a way that would get the whole country buzzing in this manner.

In a country where the understanding of art and political satire is limited, and where racial and tribal prejudices run deep, the surest way to get the nation talking if you are an artist is to push the boundaries between art and freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

Touch that sensitive vein, and you get the attention.

And so the outpouring of anger and outrage over Murray’s portrait was to be expected. But for me that’s not even the issue.

The anger diverts attention from the real issue: Zuma’s rather eventful sex life and how the debate around the portrait can be used to start positive debate about the sexual habits of the nation.

It shouldn’t be just about Zuma.

If you look closely at the portrait, you will see that while the head resembles Zuma’s two-deck one, the face is in fact that of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, and the body could be that of anyone but Zuma. So, the exposed genitals may be of anyone.

My personal interpretation of the portrait is that Murray is telling us that there is a Zuma in every one of us.

Of course the depiction of Zuma as a horny man always ready for action may be a bit exaggerated, but hits too close to home, albeit rather below the belt.

In Zuma we have a president we must perennially defend from a backlash of public opinion for one thing or the other. If not for dodgy appointments in his government, it’s from allegations of fraud and corruption and enriching himself and his allies, or from his sexual behaviour.

One friend argues that maybe before we accuse Murray of violating Zuma’s dignity, we need to examine whether there is still any dignity left to be infringed.

Of course there is, but whatever little dignity he still has left, Zuma must guard jealously and behave in a manner that does not give his detractors ammunition to despise and disrespect him. But Zuma is a difficult man to defend.

Just as we were opening our hearts a few years ago to forgive him for that rape scandal involving the daughter of a comrade, Zuma was busy unzipping his pants elsewhere.

Sonono Khoza popped up from virtually nowhere with Zuma’s umpteenth child.

His public relations staff worked overtime to calm the nerves of an angry and betrayed nation.

Even more outrageous for many was that for a man set to lead one of the countries most ravaged by Aids, Zuma didn’t wear a condom on both occasions. Even worse, he was leading the country’s ill-fated moral regeneration programme.

But if Zuma’s spin doctors thought the Sonono scandal would be the end, they were wrong.

Very wrong.

For after Sonono, Zuma has married not once more, but twice, and still has other concubines hanging in the shadows of his palatial Nkandla compound. They may pop out at anytime, if not for another wedding, for papgeld claims.

But while Zuma is within his rights to marry as many wives as he wants and date as many women as time can allow him between running the country and boosting his harem, with an office like his comes responsibility. It can’t be business as usual.

Murray’s portrait gives Zuma and the ANC the opportunity to confront the public image he has created for himself over the past few years. And those who back him must see this beyond just a portrait by a white man who has little regard for a black president.

My good friend Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha was livid on Facebook. “It was wrong of City Press to publish that disrespectful picture with the face of President Zuma,” he argued.

“It’s very wrong and breaks all the media ethics. I am disappointed that a serious newspaper would make a decision to publish such.”

Sicwetsha and I never agree on anything.

But I understand his anger and agree that the images shouldn’t have been published.

They violate the press code and if they had to be used at all, due sensitivity was needed. But, there is still an elephant in the room, Mvusi: Zuma’s sexual behaviour. When are we going to address that?

Another friend, Bongani Eustice Majola, also fumed: “That depiction of the president is racist, deeply insulting to black people and offensive. “Those who defend it are also racist, there’s no art like that, they would never depict any white person like this!

“It induces such anger and rage.

“Why are (we being) provoked like this?

“Are we black people such fair game?”

Majola and Sicwetsha miss one simple but important factor in this debate: Zuma brought this on himself. Murray wouldn’t have grounds to do a similar portrait of Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Nelson Mandela, Helen Zille, Terror Lekota, Kenneth Meshoe, Desmond Tutu or any other political leader, unless they made their sex lives the kind of mess Zuma has made his.

Today, while the fraud and corruption cloud against Zuma refuses to drift away, sex scandals have, in the minds of many, unfortunately become part of Brand Zuma. That has to be dealt with.

I am not an art connoisseur, and it would be a racially harmonious day in SA before I can even think of buying any of Murray’s artworks. Even if he can offer me his so-called piece of art for R1, I would rather buy Chappies.

I cannot even bring myself to want to have another man’s private parts dangling in my lounge or office, even if it’s only on a painting.

It is sad when artists have to paint nude and offensive images to get noticed. But if it works for them, good for them. But my problem is not Murray. It is Zuma.

The painting is distasteful, disgusting and disrespectful and shouldn’t have been published. However, perceptions of the president as a womaniser or sex-crazy man will not evaporate today even if we threaten war.

The only way to change perceptions of Zuma as a horny black man running amok is to look at Zuma himself. He must zip up and behave in a manner people expect of a man of his position. It’s the public that sets these moral standards, not the ANC or the media.

The president himself must respect the office he occupies before he can expect some artist who isn’t even that talented to respect him.

The anger around this painting says to me that the time is now to mop up the image of the president.

And that must begin with Zuma looking into himself and not giving these artists further room to use his behaviour as fodder for their canvas work. Otherwise, we cannot blame those with political satire in their veins when their paintings hit below the belt.


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