Politicians, whenever they are exposed for having said something offensive, often resort to the defence that they were “quoted out of context”.
It’s been a while since an SA artwork has generated as much column space, political temperature and sadly, threats of violence against the artist, as the painting of The Spear by Brett Murray.
I would like to suggest this work needs to be understood not simply as a work in its own right (although it stands its own on that basis too), but in a range of “contexts” to show it is not as unique or outrageous as its critics are claiming.
First, President Jacob Zuma is not the first head of state to be exposed in this way.
Just last week, Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was painted in the nude as a satirical statement by the artist Margaret Sutherland.
Other political leaders who have garnered the unwanted attention of artists include a naked Barack Obama riding a unicorn, Hillary Clinton (not to mention her husband being done in the nude on television, in cartoons and in art) and even George W Bush.
Artists generally portray political leaders in the nude to make some pointed satirical statement.
Second, the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen story The Emperor’s New Clothes is at least one historical artistic reference for such contemporary satire.
The story is of a vain emperor who parades in the nude believing that he is wearing a wonderful suit of clothing. Out of fear and respect, his subjects go along with the pretence until a little child cries out that the emperor has no clothes.
The role of the artist is no different from that of the child: to expose the vanity, the hypocrisy and the excesses of those who inhabit positions of political power.
Third, the artist uses his art to express what politicians say in words. Thus, while Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi critiques The Spear as something that “can only be the work of a very sick mind full of hatred reflective of the damage our apartheid past caused to our society”, he forgets that, in response to the DA’s march on Cosatu House, there were many Cosatu placards calling for Helen Zille to be “stripped naked”.
In response to the ensuing criticism – including from the ANC Women’s League – Cosatu explained that this, of course, was taken out of context and they meant stripping Zille naked in an ideological sense.
Politicians use words to express metaphor, artists use art – that’s how it is.
Fourth, The Spear should be seen in the context of the show as a whole. Hail to the Thief 2 comprises numerous works that are scathingly critical of the ruling party in selling out the dreams of millions of people, primarily benefiting a politically connected elite.
Again, the show is simply an artistic expression of the much more vociferous – and highly commendable – critique by Vavi of the political elite where in his words “we’re headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich”.
In that speech, Vavi continued to say that just like a hyena whose daughters eat first, so, in a predator state, the chief of state’s family eats first.
Imagine the outcry if an artist had to portray Zuma and his family as a bunch of hyenas, and yet, this is exactly what an alliance partner of the ANC and the president has said.
What Murray has done is simply give artistic expression to angry and legitimate criticism also expressed by a close Zuma ally.
A final “context” is Brett Murray’s history.
We worked together in the cultural sector of the anti-apartheid struggle and particularly during the “Towards a People’s Culture Festival” during the state of emergency.
The apartheid government banned that festival because it deemed it “a threat to national security”.
Murray is not the first or the only artist or activist for that matter – black or white – who was active in the anti-apartheid struggle, to become disillusioned with the ruling party’s straying from its liberatory ideals.
Ironically, it is further testimony to just how far we have strayed from the ideal of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and pro-poor society that Murray has attracted such vitriol and threats because he happens to have a white skin.
It is not the role of artists to be praise singers for any political, economic or social entity, but rather to speak truth to power.
As lonely as it may be for them, our society needs artists like Brett Murray now more than ever.
l Van Graan is a playwright and executive director of the African Arts Institute. He is participating in a series of meetings in Europe highlighting the ways in which freedom of creative expression is being compromised in Africa.