/ 7 October 2015

Cartoon of Zuma’s penis: Limp humour or hardline free speech?

A cropped picture of R is for Respect
A cropped picture of R is for Respect

Anton Kannemeyer’s cartoon, R is for Respect, shows a giant black penis and scrotum hovering above a group of angry black demonstrators carrying a banner that demands: “Respect for the president’s penis now!”

The image is a reference to the 2012 controversy over another painting, The Spear by Brett Murray, which portrayed President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitalia and led to a protest march, court case and national debate around black African identity and the right to freedom of speech.

Kannemeyer, who is white, recalled: “At the time there was this whole furore, there were people toyi-toyiing in the streets, really upset about the fact that the president’s penis was drawn and I remember at the same time in the newspapers there was an article saying that 75 or so primary school black children, girls, were pregnant.

“One of the things mentioned during this time was that we don’t talk about the black man’s penis. So I have a right to talk about the white man’s penis but not the black man’s penis,” he said.

“I think that sounds like censorship and not the kind of thing I should do. I think R is for respect, respect for the president’s penis now, and it must be drawn.”

Asked if he feared a political backlash like that seen against The Spear, Kannemeyer replied: “I don’t know what the president’s penis looks like so I cannot really draw it. I can just draw a symbolic penis; that’s really what it is.

“I hope there’s not a backlash. I think it’s a work that investigates that work. I hope the debate doesn’t stop there. People need to talk about these things.”

Kannemeyer is known for his controversial explorations of ethnicity and politics. His show, E is for Exhibition, which opened at Johannesburg’s Stevenson Gallery on Thursday, features mockery of Zuma and the former president Thabo Mbeki as well as an image of a wheelchair-bound rugby star beside a masturbating Jesus. A cartoon of the paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, kneeling on a running track with the South African flag, is entitled M is for Murder and Mayhem – Pistorius was cleared of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, but convicted of culpable homicide.

But it was R is for Respect, a 217cm x 150cm black ink and acrylic work, that earned a swift rebuke from the government. Buti Manamela, deputy minister in the presidency, said: “We don’t have time for bigotry and what clearly is racism being projected as art. Hopefully, the artist feels good about himself and I don’t think we want to be preoccupied with this when the country has far more important concerns.”

Manamela, who three years ago threatened to close down the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg for displaying The Spear, added: “If you want to ridicule the leadership of the country, that’s your privilege. It’s quite sickening.”

Others joined the condemnation. Charl Blignaut, arts editor at the City Press newspaper, said: “Personally, I regard the work as racist. And, yes, it makes a considerable difference that the artist is white.

“Of all the ways to criticise president Zuma, of all the symbols to pick, this is the most problematic because it’s a trope – the rampant black penis – that plays into a painful history of not only the exoticisation of the black male body but also the fear of the virile black male that subconsciously drove so much of apartheid policy, alcohol and drug legislation, and separationist philosophy.

“It both fetishises and emasculates the black man, while neatly stereotyping him too,” he said.

Eusebius McKaiser, an author and columnist, said: “This work is simply weak from an aesthetic viewpoint. It is neither elegantly plain nor textured with new, fresh, layered meaning.

“Its aim – to critically engage popular opposition to The Spear – is laudable. But the execution is limp – pardon the pun. So the work raises no interesting moral or aesthetic questions. It is simply an unimaginative restatement of well-rehearsed criticism.”

The Spear by Brett Murray, who is also white, caused uproar when it was exhibited. Zuma and the governing African National Congress took the Goodman Gallery to court and the painting was eventually defaced by protesters. Bitter arguments raged over whether it was legitimate political satire at a president’s expense or should be viewed in the context of the denigration of black bodies and dignity over centuries.

On Friday, Murray came to Kannemeyer’s defence. “Every artist will have their own limit and should be able to push the envelope,” he said. “They should be able to do that freely. I’m 100% for freedom of expression. As Noam Chomsky said, if you don’t respect freedom of expression for those you despise, you don’t respect freedom of expression. And everyone has a right to their own opinion of this work.”

Murray added that the comedian Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show in the US, had lampooned Zuma’s penis years ago but with little outcry. “Globally, when a person in a position of power has a reputation for sleeping around – Silvio Berlusconi, Bill Clinton – satirists and comedians will have a go. Whether he’s black or white doesn’t matter, although it certainly complicates the issue in South Africa.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015