Defacing race and culture: The Spear and politics of representation

Supporters of the African National Congress demonstrate outside Johannesburg court on May 22 to demand the removal of a portrait of Jacob Zuma posing as Lenin with his genitals exposed from the Goodman Gallery. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

Supporters of the African National Congress demonstrate outside Johannesburg court on May 22 to demand the removal of a portrait of Jacob Zuma posing as Lenin with his genitals exposed from the Goodman Gallery. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

By the time you read this, an action by the ANC will be under way in the South Gauteng High Court to get an interdict requiring the Goodman Gallery to remove the artwork, The Spear, by Brett Murray from the walls of its exhibition space.

Is it still relevant for the court to consider an action regarding a work that, in its original conception, no longer exists? The now-infamous work was defaced by two men on Tuesday.

As a young black art historian, my concern is not simply what the work is about but the other niggling issues that are tied to it.

Reading about the defacement of the artwork made me recall my visit to the Goodman Gallery on Friday afternoon.

As I stood in the gallery space watching visitors’ reactions, a tall, white, elderly gentleman walked in, hands crossed behind his back, with a clear expression of irritation on his face. From a few metres away, I could hear him muttering about the tackiness of the artworks on display; the neo-fascist associations they dared to make; and how the gallery deserved to be burnt down … yes, “burnt down”. His outbursts didn’t end there.

Getting angrier as he paced around, he stopped in front of the infamous artwork and proclaimed that it was insensitive and disrespectful. At one point he turned towards me as he expressed his disgust, while I looked at him in utter bewilderment.

The black security guard, who had been standing at the door, approached the scene but he not in a stance of readied intervention. Instead, he nodded his head in quiet agreement with most of the statements.

I was taken aback that this passionate outburst was coming from a white person. The whole episode just felt surreal but satisfying to me.

As he started to leave, the man walked over to one of the gallerists and told her the artist and gallery had no sense of consideration for the (black) cultures of the country we lived in and how the depiction of genitalia was both rude and deeply insulting.

I was left wondering how it was that a white person, of all people, was the one to react. It was pleasing to think somewhere there was still hope for South Africa but one woman ruined the moment.

This white woman passed by with her primary school-age child, pointing to the work and saying in a rather cavalier tone: “That’s your president.”

My liberal and art historical sensibilities faltered momentarily.

By now, you may be wondering if it was the same white man I saw who defaced the artwork. I certainly thought it might be when I read the news stories about the incident, but it was not.

I still find myself asking what the artist set out to achieve with this work. Was it a publicity stunt, a political statement, dialogue, a personal gripe, or all of the above?

The Spear, in my opinion, was the weakest of all the works in the exhibition when it came to making a “political” statement. Despite its rather in-your-face appeal, the image seemed to me to be nothing more than an afterthought.

Perhaps it was the recent wedding of the president to his sixth wife that set the artist off, and he decided right there and then: “I’ve had it with this darkie and his insatiable sexual appetite.”

I could be wrong. Murray has since said that he never intended to hurt anyone but rather to give a satirical take on political power and patriarchy. I am assuming he meant “black” patriarchy.

Whatever his reasons were, the artwork has brought into sharp focus the issue of black people’s representation at the hands of whites, and what some have called a continued sense of colonial othering.

This “othering” is and has been a prominent aspect within the field of art practice and history for a long time – something that the liberal analysts-come-pseudo art critics with their rationalisations, have seemed unwilling to concede, as if somehow assuming that by ignoring it, it would be a non-issue.

As much as we would like to deny it, the depiction of African people, their cultures and practices has long been governed by the Western ideological gaze. In this light, the majority of reactions by black people, the ANC, Jacob Zuma himself and his family, was to be expected.

This past Monday, the Atlanticran a story by biologist Rob Brooks on the evolutionary human links between inequality and misogyny.

Somewhere in his scientific musings, Brooks wrote in regards with the practice of polygamy that “Zuma is, in many ways, the product of an environment that reinforces some of our worst evolved traits”.

The very insinuations of his words have a chilling effect.

Am I being emotional? Absolutely!

I believe that rationalist views tend to underestimate emotional responses at their peril. And it is these responses that lead to the defacement of artworks.

It has become almost profane for black people to lament the effects of an oppressive and racialised past without being branded oversensitive and emotional.

Personally I feel that, sometimes, liberal arguments amount to nothing more than choosing to sacrifice basic principles (like empathy) at the altar of unrepentant freedom of expression, which, ironically, we are not free to criticise.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry. Read more from Mpho Moshe Matheolane

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