Between satire and slogan

All artists get a rush from seeing their work on public display, especially if unexpected—a zing of recognition, pride and ego.

Recently I experienced the flip side—the stomach-turning sensation brought about by unexpectedly seeing my work on display only to realise that it had been taken over and remade by someone else to give a totally different and unacceptable meaning, and, to add insult to injury, hanging there in the other artist’s name.

This happened at the current exhibition in the Goodman Gallery Project Space at Arts on Main. Artist Brett Murray has recreated a poster I made in 1982 with the Medu Art Ensemble—an exact copy, line by line, with just the last word changed. Another Murray artwork rips off an equally iconic poster done at the Community Arts Project (not by me) in 1984, “Asiyi eKhayelitsha—we demand houses, security and comfort” (which form demands in the Freedom Charter). This image is also copied exactly although with most of the words changed.

The original women’s poster used the English words of the 1956 protest song, Umthinta Wafasi, Umthinta Mbokodo, “You have touched the women, you have struck a rock, you have disloged a boulder, you will be crushed”.

Brett Murray’s picture changes the last word, reading “you will be president”. Presumably Murray conceives this as a sarcastic reflection on the ANC Women’s League’s response to Jacob Zuma—he has not felt the wrath of the women but has been raised up instead.

In the second reworked poster “Asiyi eKhayelitsha” has been changed to “Amandla” and the slogan now reads “We demand Chivas, BMW’s and Bribes”.

Rip offs
Coming home, a quick google shows these are only two of a number of popular Struggle images that Murray has revisited. One also rips off another of my artworks, a poster designed in memory of Solomon Mahlangu in 1981. The original quotes Mahlangu’s words as he faced the apartheid government hangman: “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle.” Murray edits this to read: “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and kick-backs”. These words, following the original, are in quotation marks, attributed to Mahlangu.

Murray’s website also describes five separate plaques from his 2010 Cape Town exhibition, Hail to the Thief, separately inscribed with “Chris Hush Money Hani”, “Walter the Sweetener Sisulu”, “Joe Mr Ten Percent Slovo”, “Steve Kick-Back King Biko” and “Oliver on the Take Tambo”.

Do not mistake me: I do not object to an artist appropriating images that have become common property over the years and using these to present a new message. On some level perhaps one should be flattered that the images are public property, that people will obviously be aware that the images did not spring full-blown from Murray’s artistic vision. Appropriation and change of known images is one of the ways in which culture grows.

However, there are limits to legitimate artistic recreation. In the web exhibit of Hail to the Thief, Murray reproduces another poster, “Why must we keep on dying this way?”, which makes no changes except in the medium—his is paint on wood rather than silkscreen—and in the title, which reads Xenophobia.

Presenting a unaltered copy of a poster from 1984 as his own work without informing the viewer that this was done by a screen training project with youths from the Vaal might be considered to cross some fuzzy line of what constitutes plagiarism.

But my objection is not that Murray appropriates Struggle images or even that he appropriates images that I and others created without attribution and calls them his own. My objection is that he misappropriates these images. These images became public and iconic because they told of our beliefs and our commitments during that time of Struggle.

Murray’s “artistic” revisions have the images saying the opposite of what we believed, suggesting that the “real” demand in 1979, 1982 and 1984 was for BMWs and Chivas and kick-backs, and that the women’s movement of 1956 worked to make a male chauvinist who abuses women into our president. To rewrite Mahlangu’s final words to claim he fought for kick-backs is frankly defamatory. To make plaques “commemorating” heroes that label them as corrupt negates our history and insults their memory.

The Goodman website describes Murray’s work as “acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness — a vitriolic and succinct censure of bad governance — [which aims] to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite”.

Praise for Murray’s “revisiting” Struggle images does not end there either. In a review of the Hail to the Thief exhibit, (ex-)Struggle artist Mike van Graan defends them: “One’s first reaction to these—and I imagine that for some it will be the only reaction—is that the artist is dishonouring the memory of these struggle icons. There will be many who play the tiresome race card and shoot the white messenger artist for his racist attack on black Struggle heroes. When the emotional dust settles and the politically correct (or rather, the politically opportunistic—where blackness is appropriated as a smokescreen under which to pursue and justify dubiously gotten gain) kneejerk reactions subside, the realisation dawns that Murray is but giving artistic expression to what even the ruling party’s closest political allies have been vociferous about.”

But do such images comprise a credible artistic denunciation of today’s political abuse and corruption? To me, and I strongly believe also to many others who were involved in the Struggle, reworking these images conveys rather a deep and more sinister message, quite other than the (brave and laudable) condemnation of bad morals and greed rampant among our rulers.

Artistic failure

In reconstructing and undermining historical Struggle images and messages, even to misquoting the words of our heroes, Murray suggests that bad morals and greed formed the underlying motivation for our Struggle, that the roots of today’s failure grow from fault lines integral to the Struggle itself.

I would argue that if this message is not his intention but an unfortunate by-product of the form he uses then we must dismiss his work as artistic failure—it conveys a wrong, unintended message.

Murray’s distortion of iconic images invokes outrage but does not actually pinpoint the problem of corrupt politicians facing us.

Ultimately it is a cheap shot—a lazy route to audience reaction. It does not help us to find a way forward. Moreover, it feeds tired old stereotypes pushed by the counter-revolution—that our national liberation Struggle was no more than a fight to change one group of greedy and self-seeking ­rulers for another.

Van Graan says that we who reject Murray’s art demonstrate a “kneejerk” reaction based on the “tiresome race card”. Indeed, exploring this work does lead us to question whether an artist should attempt to put words into the mouths of people whom the artist sees as “the other”. And, yes, this inevitably raises the spectre of whether a white, middle-class, professional male artist in 2010 should have taken upon himself the task of rewording statements that came out of the Struggle.

Sharing perceptions
To Van Graan, we might say: the true heritage of Struggle posters stands with the female activists who formed a purple line to oppose the mobs at Zuma’s rape trial in 2007, with the ex-combatants from Kagiso who in January of this year produced a poster that read “No land, jobs, houses; not yet uhuru”, and with the protesters in the Free State where Andries Tatane died—not in a ripped-off image being sold as a work of art for R10?000 in a privately owned upmarket gallery.

Of course, any artist has a right to play with words, images and ideas as he sees fit. But then we who encounter the work have every right to respond accordingly. Good art is about sharing perceptions and understandings, about building truths. Deliberate distortion of our cultural heritage does not help the viewer to understand how we lived but obscures it. Calling it art earns it a different and more straight-forward label—bad art.

Brett Murray replies

Thankfully political correctness and self-censorship are not cornerstones of effective political satire. If they were, it would not be called satire, rather “Ironic Praise Singing”.

I spent what seems to be a big chunk of the late 1980s designing and printing silkscreens and T-shirts, producing banners, stickers, murals and logos for various church organisations, trade unions, youth groups and the war resistance movement, all of which formed part of the cultural arm of “The Struggle”. It is with a profound sadness that I have revisited some of the more iconic images of the time in order to express my contempt for the members of the new regime who, I believe, are undermining the victories that have been achieved through their corruption and guile and who are effectively pissing on the graves of the struggle heroes.

Parody is part of the satirist’s arsenal and it is through this that I hope to expose the new pigs at the trough. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, nothing is sacred.

Brett Murray’s work is part of the group show Additions at the Goodman Gallery Project Space, Arts on Main until June 23

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