This last week, I’ve been in Santiago, Chile, for the sixth World Summit on Arts and Culture hosted by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies and Chile’s Ministry of Arts and Culture.
When visiting the Museum for Memory and Human Rights, an institution dedicated to the more than 3 000 people who disappeared during the Pinochet era as well as to over 40 000 people who were jailed and tortured, I was struck by a section of the museum devoted to the role that artists had played in resisting the CIA-backed coup and the subsequent military dictatorship.
I’m not sure that any of our museums – such as the private sector Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg or the publicly funded Freedom Park in Pretoria – specifically honour the role played by artists in the anti-apartheid struggle, but this would make for an interesting project.
Towards the end of last year, a Facebook spat unfolded between artists and Sandile Memela, the director of PR and Communications in the Department of Arts and Culture, after he suggested that most artists were not intellectuals and implied that they should stay out of politics and stick to what they did best.
This was reminiscent of apartheid’s leaders, who also suggested that artists – as well as teachers, preachers and just about everyone else – should leave politics to the politicians.
Apartheid permeated every aspect of our lives: where we could live, which school we could attend, who could live together as families, what jobs we could do and even whom we could love.
In this context, numerous artists actively supported the anti-apartheid struggle with their music, theatre, visual arts, poster designs and the like. For example, the Towards a People’s Culture Arts Festival of 1986 was intended to serve as an act of defiance against the state of emergency prevailing at the time. However, the festival was banned a few days before its start as it was deemed to be a threat to national security.
One of the participants in that festival was Brett Murray.
Consistent with his social and political commentary then, Murray put together his Hail to the Thief exhibition in 2010, which featured works such as the ANC logo with a “For Sale” sign plastered over it, and another saying “Sold”. His plaque, “President and Sons Ltd” alluded to the manner in which some of President Zuma’s extended family members had become overnight millionaires.
Murray was simply putting into artistic form what Zwelinzima Vavi, then Cosatu’s outspoken general secretary, had warned in that very year when he said that South Africa was “heading for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich”. He added that just as the hyena and her daughters ate first, so the family of the chief of a predator state eats first.
Some of these works were included in Murray’s second Hail to the Thief exhibition, along with the now infamous painting, The Spear, of President Zuma in Lenin-like pose and with exposed genitals, symbolising power and its abuse.
It was when City Press published a review of the exhibition and featured photographs of the work that a storm of controversy was unleashed, with marches on the Goodman Gallery demanding the painting be removed.
A church leader called for Murray to be stoned and the minister of higher education insisted the work be destroyed.
Unsurprisingly, Murray was dismissed as a racist, and if it could be done, would have been struck off the anti-apartheid credentials roll.
The large-scale public expenditure on the president’s private residence is now receiving widespread criticism, with the Economic Freedom Fighters labelling it a “monument to corruption”.
The Spear now appears to be a prescient artistic intervention for it alludes to the rape of the public purse for the personal benefit of the president.
The Spear also showed the potential impact of artwork in provoking debate if it were more in the general public domain rather than in elite art spaces.
We celebrate 20 years of democracy this year, a year in which we will also host our fifth democratic elections for our national and provincial parliaments. There will be many public events to mark our democratic progress, and artists will be invited by political parties to lend their celebrity to these parties’ campaigns to capture votes.
While every artist has the right to determine whether she or he will play such a role, artists will serve the country best when they utilise their constitutional freedom and right to creative expression to promote and defend our work-in-progress democracy.
For more, better democracy, we need more and more provocative art that reflects on our contemporary condition in the public space.