All along I have been advocating Brett Murray’s right to paint what he wishes. I was like Tselane Tambo asking the president to get over it, inquire of the painting’s deeper meaning and get on with running the country. I have been like Ayanda Mabhulu the irreverent artist who had committed the same act as that of Brett Murray except that his artwork received no uproar. Ayanda said the response to this painting only shows how artistically illiterate the leaders are. I too thought so. Can everybody get beyond the president’s dangly bits in the painting and look at the full exhibition and concentrate on the cleverness of it all, I thought. I was convinced and am still convinced that the depiction carries a much greater meaning than making a mockery of the president as a man. I was pleading to everyone to look deeper. As a side issue unintended by the artist I am certain; I thought yes, the ruthless object that has been destroying femininity in South Africa has finally been named by another man. The president was merely a representation of the nation’s broader masculine bias. The violent weapon that is most feared by woman in this country, that destroys children and women daily had finally been hung on the wall of the nation. There it was and its exposure caused a great uproar. It was named. It was hung. Its power suddenly dissipated and the fear of rape evaporated.
Had it been a different object, the image would not have caught the attention of the entire nation, yet we know that is not what the artwork is about. Yes, The Spear is social commentary on South Africa’s current politics and political leaders and the real uproar was that Jacob Zuma, the country’s president was depicted with his manhood exposed. Indeed a powerful image, one that offended most black South Africans. How could such an act be done to our president? The ANC called for it to be removed from the Goodman gallery while Blade Nzimande declared war on the City Press for refusing to remove it on their website accusing them of double standards. I thought Nzimande was being extreme for calling the painting racist. I thought that was uncalled for and it was a refusal to understand what the exhibition was about because it is about them. Nzimande further said the painting was an insult to all black people, this was a statement that infuriated me because I felt that he was highly irresponsible for inciting more racial anger in the country. I wanted Nzimande to control himself because he was simply upset that his demands were not met and now this was his retaliation, I concluded.
I watched the president deliver a speech at the University of Fort Hare in honour of Pixely Seme the great ANC icon, the originator of I am an African. He began his speech by singing a song I hate, a song that was sung during the struggle, a song I regard as one of gross self-pity… but I could understand why he sang it none-the-less. The president’s face was not the jubilant face we have come to know since the fall of Julius. His face was somber and appeared to have more wrinkles than usual. He sang with a lovely voice, and it was good to hear the president’s voice sing even though the song was “Senzeni na, senzeni na” (what have we done, what have we done). It is a lament that was sung in apartheid South Africa that said “our only sin is our blackness”. I wondered if he sang because of Brett Murray’s depiction of him as he made reference to how Africans had been portrayed historically in a negative light and in this case Brett had done so even though he never said it outright. I looked at the president and felt that I did not want to pity my president. I wanted to admire him; I wanted to be inspired by him.
I spoke with my mother about these matters and my irritation at everyone who calls the artwork racist, especially Nzimande. My mother then recounted the times in history when black sexuality had been humiliated. She mentioned the humiliation suffered by Saartjie Baartman under the hand of whites. She told me of the many migrant labours who would be stripped off their clothing and dipped in water that would rid them of the germs they must have carried because they were black before they would be allowed to work. She told me how the black man would all strip naked and stand in line while a white female inspected them. She told me that Brett Murray’s painting brings back all those memories. Jacob Zuma in his speech said: “They want us to forget”. Those were very weighty words. What he was saying was; they, the whites, want us black people to forget everything about the past while they replicate the past only to remind us of what they want us to forget. Zuma did not elaborate as everyone knew what he meant.
Here is a man like Jacob Zuma who is the president of the Republic of South Africa despite all his weaknesses is passionate about reconciliation perhaps even more so than the former president Mbeki. While I am grateful that Murray showed the power of art and that he had us talking about it, is it too much to ask for a positive representation of the country? My mother concluded and said that in her opinion though we are a free nation, whites should tread with greater sensitivity and should perhaps be the last to criticise the current government harshly, out of repentance. We are all free but we must heal one another’s wounds first.
I concluded that Brett Murray must burn his painting if he wants to show remorse for the pain he has caused. The City Press and the Goodman Gallery need to also acknowledge that this has caused pain. Looking back at the SAMA awards, all I can remember is how beautiful the rainbow nation looked. It was beautiful to watch musicians from different cultural back grounds and across the colour line made melodies together. They celebrated diversity. They celebrated the streets we all come from. If we listen to the music coming out of our nation we will know that we are reconciling and that we are healing one another’s wounds.
- Happy Africa Day from us at Feint & Margin
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