No matter how heated the debate became during The Spear debacle earlier this year, Cape Town-based artist Brett Murray chose not to enter the fray.
Murray resisted mounting pressure to come forward and explain the motivations behind his contentious portrait of President Jacob Zuma, which exposed the leader’s genitals.
Even when Zuma took the case to court, to appeal for the artwork to be removed from the Goodman Gallery, various individuals suggested Murray’s work was racist in intent, and when his life was threatened, Murray maintained his silence.
There were those in the art community who believed that if he had spoken publicly about the work and explained his intentions, the conflict which the artwork provoked may have been avoided.
On Thursday evening, at the opening of the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) at the Sandton Convention Centre, Murray broke his silence in quite a literal manner with a large scripto-visual artwork presenting the word “silence”.
This new artwork, titled Dissent, was discreetly displayed inside the Goodman Gallery’s stand. However, it proved to be one of the most talked-about works at this annual event, which attracts Joburg’s moneyed classes and ends today.
Once again Murray has chosen not to speak about the work, so viewers at the fair were left to make up their minds about what it might signify. Coming so soon after The Spear debacle, the work does suggest that the pressure the ANC placed on the Goodman Gallery and the artist to withdraw The Spear from public display was tantamount to censorship.
The agreement between the ANC and the Goodman Gallery, in which the former agreed to drop its court interdict application if the art institution ensured the artwork didn’t go on display in its galleries (they have two in Joburg and one in Cape Town) and its website, came soon after thousands of protesters led by Gwede Mantashe congregated outside its Rosebank gallery, where the artwork had been shown. Many commentators described the action the ruling party employed as “bullying tactics”.
Murray’s new work may also refer to the form of self-censorship that the ANC’s actions during the debacle may have instilled in the arts community.
Silence is certainly a far cry from the bold works Murray has been showing at the art fair in previous years. In 2010 Murray’s The Struggle was for sale at the Goodman Gallery’s stand. It was a work presenting a subversion of a quote from Solomon Mhlangu, a respected activist, which was altered to read: “Tell my people that I love them and that I will continue to struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and kickbacks.”
Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s national spokesman, referred to this artwork during the press briefing in May when the agreement between the Goodman Gallery and the ANC was announced.
Mthembu expressed dismay that Mahlangu’s famous gallows speech had been subverted by Murray so disrespectfully, implying that the ruling party deemed certain subject matter sacred and above parody.
Given the overt manner in which Murray usually expresses his opinions about the ruling party, his artwork Silence is an unusually passive if not oblique statement that seems uncharacteristic for an artist who has been pushing the envelope for some time. Has the ANC succeeded in silencing Murray? Has Murray lost his courage to speak out?
Federico Freschi, the director of Goodman Gallery Cape, intimated that Dissent may refer to inaction in the face of corruption and other malfeasant activities perpetrated by and in the government.
It is unlikely that the same degree of speculation around the meaning of The Spear will be revisited on Murray’s latest work, as it won’t ruffle any feathers. It could be the artist’s last word on the topic.
The FNB JAF is serving as a platform for artists to launch an assault, albeit indirectly, on the government’s now well-publicised view on male nudity.
In an act of bold resistance, depictions of naked penises abounded at the fair. Most notably was Pieter Hugo’s photographic series of nude portraits that were part of this year’s Pirelli Special Project. The series presents both male and female subjects letting it all hang out. His subjects are multiracial and middle-aged and are seen posing in the nude in the intimacy of their own homes.
While the female subjects cross their legs, modestly concealing their genital areas, all the male subjects offer full-frontal views of theirs.
A naked Turner Adams, an ex-con from the Cape Flats, is the centre of a photographic essay by Gordon Clark showing at the German gallery Art Co. In the work Predator or Prey he sits astride a dilapidated concrete structure in a seafront setting with his naked penis in full view.
Turning the gaze on his own body, Ed Young presented a lifelike miniaturised sculpture of his nude frame, which is wryly titled, The Gallerist Made me do It, which showed at the Smac Gallery’s stand.
The realistic replica of his naked form dangles from a large nail and depicts him from behind.
The work has attracted crowds; everyone from schoolchildren to Sandton shoppers flocked to see it, and most curious viewers attempted to take a peek of the sculpture from the front, to see how Young’s exposed genitals have been rendered.
Artworks depicting male nudity have always been a feature of art. However, in the wake of The Spear debacle, which has politicised representations of male nudity, this motif has taken on a new slant and has become fertile ground for artists to explore and challenge cultural taboos around the male body.
At the press conference at the Goodman Gallery in May, Mthembu declared the government would in future consider taking legal action against artists who challenge male dignity. They may not carry out this threat, but it seems to have encouraged art addressing the nature of this theme.