/ 30 November 2010

Art controversies of 2010

Arts editor Lisa van Wyk talks us through her favourite art controversies of the year.

If one thing has been proven this year, it’s that art and politics do not mix.

The fine art world is never dull. Fragile egos abound, sensitive issues are the order of the day, and there is always someone outside the inner circle who doesn’t “get it”. It’s often those with money and power who make the decisions.

We have rounded up some of the most controversial fine art moments of the past year.

Elephants in trouble
The saga of the elephants in Durban’s Warwick junction continues to dumbfound onlookers. Sculptor Andries Botha, commissioned by the City of Durban to produce three life-size elephants to grace the new development near Durban’s city centre, started work on the project a year ago. As the works were nearing completion at the beginning of 2010, he was told to stop work without explanation. The African National Congress-led city council finally admitted that it was because the three elephants resembled the Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP) logo. Ever since, the three incomplete and very expensive sculptures have been standing under shadecloth while bureaucrats argue and bicker about their fate.

King Shaka the herdboy
Poor Andries Botha. When ANC officials aren’t fighting about his elephants, IFP officials are complaining about his sculpture of King Shaka, that was commissioned to be placed at the new King Shaka International Airport north of Durban. Apparently, the piece he created made the Zulu king look like a “herdboy” and did not resemble the heroic warrior they were hoping for. Botha defended his work, explaining that it showed a valid interpretation of the king as a young man and avoided stereotype. The work (again, very expensive) has since been removed and apparently another sculpture that depicts the Zulu king in a warrior pose has been commissioned.

Mandela autopsy
Oh dear. We almost didn’t bother following up on this story, but when we did all hell broke loose. An unknown artist creating an artwork in slightly bad taste in a public space — probably for a bit of calculated controversy — hardly seemed worth the schlep to the shopping centre where he was painting. Running the story and a picture of the unfinished artwork caused everyone from Joe Public to the ANC to rage and argue and write us Very Stern Letters of Complaint. The truth though was that under all the noise and fuss the painting wasn’t very good. A badly executed copy of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp — which showed Mandela on the slab in place of the corpse — hardly warranted the attention. When artist Yiull Damaso unveiled the finished work months later, no one really noticed. Phew.

Lulu and the lesbians
It has been a long-standing complaint among art practitioners in South Africa that the role of minister of arts and culture has always been seen as a bit of a demotion, rather than one that should be filled by someone with real empathy for and understanding of artists and the arts. Many were lamenting this when, at an exhibition at Constitution Hill then Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwane stormed out, complaining that the works were “pornographic”, among other things.

The works, by young photographer Zanele Muholi, depicted young black lesbian couples. With these images, Muholi was trying to depict the everyday normality of this group. The fact that the incident took place at Constitution Hill at an exhibition aimed at highlighting women’s rights was not lost on a critical media or on the artist, who complained that the incident did not bode well for the arts or the status of gay women in South Africa.

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report here: