Spare us the schoolboy satire of 'The Spear'

Brett Murray's defaced painting at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Brett Murray's defaced painting at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Brett Murray’s painting. The one causing all the controversy. The one with President Jacob Zuma and his bits on show.
They’re not even his bits – just some random cock and balls plonked onto a picture of him standing in a famous Lenin-like pose. Anyway, titled The Spear, this not-very-good acrylic painting, standing at 1.85m high, is a not-very-good example of satire. It is, quite frankly, school-boy, like the roguish act of drawing a set of privates in your history text book and then assigning the headmaster’s features to the effort.

It’s sad to see the body of an exhibition so quickly decontextualised. Murray’s show, Hail to the Thief II, showing at the Goodman since last week, came under the scrutiny of the ANC for its provocative political commentary that, although mainly directed at the party itself, also included this scathing attack on Zuma’s private life. But as the platitude goes, the personal is political.

Works which have also raised the ANC’s ire include a piece showing the ruling party’s coat of arms with a “For Sale” logo pasted across the famous shield and spear and, on top of that, a “Sold” sign running diagonally across.

In recent years the ANC has been rocked by endless controversies over illicit tendering and internal politicking that has allowed fat cats to abuse party structures for personal gain. In a comrade climate where secrecy and censorship is firmly on the agenda of the governing party and the lips of the press, Murray’s political stab here is sharp and to the point, and the anger that this gesture has provoked reveals a horrible sting of truth.

But the hit would have been less palpable had the ANC taken the political bait by unwittingly inviting the media into the circus.

Early last week the Goodman Gallery was, like most other galleries in the country, quiet. A week into the exhibition’s run, visitor numbers hadn’t been the least bit affected by the controversial material on display. It was a City Press article which alerted the ANC to the fact that party and state – ie the president’s bits – were the objects of ridicule.

And so the circus began. The media has a significant part to play in this, and sadly, it’s not one where they come out looking insightful or measured. In fact, the media’s role in this bizarre saga emphasises the parasitic relationship they have with these kinds of controversies.

By Thursday, following Jackson Mthembu’s official ANC party statement, the gallery was flooded by international news crews and a host of local and foreign journalists all of whom were revelling in the spotlight on Zuma’s ... privacy. In fact the level of revelry escalated to people literally touching the “first pair” in a mocking attempt to “cover up” the source of Zuma’s embarrassment.

By any gallery standards this is unacceptable. Artwork isn’t to be touched. I’m as guilty as the next of covertly running my fingers over the surface of a sculpture, or tugging at some cotton to feel its texture. But the kind of spectacle created by journalists lining up to pose with their hands fondling an impression of Jacob Zuma’s crotch is just a little distasteful.

Bringing us to the Goodman Gallery itself. The statement issued by the gallery that it remains a neutral space whose views aren’t necessarily reflected by the artists they show is, in this instance, laughable. “This seems like a rather elaborate PR campaign,” I muttered to one of the frightened looking gallery assistants as I left on Thursday.

Extra security had been called in due to the fear of reprisals, and by Saturday, ominous-looking black-clad private security guards brandishing truncheons and mace menacingly eyed gallery-goers as if each one could be a party hack concealing a can of spray paint in their Louis Vuitton knock-off.

Censorship, to be absolutely clear, is the single greatest threat to any democracy. But what we have here is an instance where the press has adopted Murray’s juvenile satire in order to take yet another stab at an increasingly beleaguered president whilst brandishing the freedom of expression like a dull club.

As Zapiro’s cartoon in this weekend’s Sunday Times so aptly put it: Respect is earned. If that is the case, then everyone involved in this carnival has lost a little.

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