I feel naïve to have thought that art offered one of the only scared spaces to be freely expressive. Two weeks ago, I wrote a post that attempted to diplomatically depict the controversial saga that has unfolded over artist Brett Murray’s “The Spear”, a Communist propaganda style portrayal of South African president Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out from his zipper. I tried to weigh the very sensitive issues around race that the painting may have unintentionally evoked, with the ANC’s heavy-handed call to remove the work from its Goodman gallery exhibition as well as its image from press circulation. It seems Murray’s work had stirred an array of emotions concerning cultural and social well being in South Africa in what was deemed an attack on the President’s persona and his cultural beliefs. What ensued was most revealing of the President’s inaptitude to handle parody as well as his political party’s inability to avert their political agenda in order to take the high road for the greater good. Instead, the ANC fueled the saga recognizing it as a timely opportunity to bring to fore larger racial and cultural concerns in lead up to the country’s election.
After their unsuccessful bid in court to remove the work from both the gallery and the press, and realizing their ploy would not work in court, the ANC finally decided to withdraw their case. However, public discontent had already been rallied. This resulted not only in the vandalism of the work, but also in the gallery removing the damaged piece as activists gathered outside its doors, and finally City Press editor Ferial Haffajee opting to pull its image from their websites stating, “We take down the image in the spirit of peacemaking — it is an olive branch. But the debate must not end here and we should all turn this into a learning moment, in the interest of all our freedoms.”
Despite this willingness to continue debate, Haffajee is aware of the possible escalation of the issue into violence. In her City Press online statement she expresses concern for, “the personal safety of the newspaper’s vendors, and journalists, after ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe called for a boycott of City Press last week.”
This concern is no doubt heightened by the ANC’s not-so-smooth attempt to leverage what they termed as an “unpatriotic attack” on the president to make a rash call for the public to step in and back their sentiments in the hopes of winning favor. An immature act that led to nothing more than making the president look like a humorless, tantrum prone and guilty subject.
Furthermore, the parties attempt to centralize race and cultural slander as the works central protagonist was glaringly transparent. In fact, during court proceedings Judge Neels Claassen asked, “What evidence is there that this is a colonial attack on the black cultures of this country?”
Zuma’s advocate Gcina Malinidi responded, “There have been heavy suggestions that only the educated understand art and it is beyond the comprehension of people who don’t belong to this group.”
Shortly after Malinidi suffered a breakdown and left the court in tears. Surely, she was embarrassed at her weak attempt at positioning art as an elitist pursuit in light of the many artists and public art projects that visibly and publicly activated support against Apartheid throughout its political era. The argument that galleries are not as yet representative of the diversity that is South Africa is a relevant yet very separate issue.
However, public pressure to censor artist’s work is not isolated to the shores of South Africa. The overzealous response of Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough to remove the work “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz as part of the 2011 exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, is still fresh in our minds. Wojnarowicz’s video piece — created in response to the artist being diagnosed as HIV positive — was criticized by the Catholic league as well as members of Congress for having content of an anti-Christian sentiment. (Note that none of these members of Congress had actually seen the exhibition until this artwork was brought to their attention). Despite the other 104 works offering equally provocative gestures, it seemed depicting ants crawling over a crucifix was enough to warrant the works removal. Since when is it the artists job to make work that factors in ethical obligations to all factions of society?
The Smithsonian released this statement to justify its actions:
“We removed it from the exhibition Nov 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition, which includes works by American artist John Singer Sargent, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz and Georgia O’Keefe.”
A flurry of responses ranged from pragmatism to a call for the director to step down. The most pertinent response however came from fellow artist AA Bronson who requested his own work also be removed from the exhibition as an act of protest. Despite this request, and after a long battle over rights to the work, his request was denied. Another action that confounded the Smithsonian’s gross denial of artistic integrity.
Although Wojnarowicz provoked a different set of issues to that of Murray, these two cases revealed to me that public pressure too easily seeps through the walls of arts enclosures and too easily dictates what may or may not be shown, and invariably what may or may not be said. In my view, enforcing the omission of artwork is as good a propagandist device as dictating a work’s inclusion.
Thankfully, as the story of “The Spear” unfolded — including court cases instigated by the President, vandalism of the artwork by members of the public, activist marches and a series of stories covering the coerced actions of the gallery and the press to appease the ANC by making amends — the President and his entourage have made themselves the butt (or rather the crowned jewel) of numerous jokes. This in turn has provided fuel to local satirist Zapiro as well as advertisers who used the opportunity to make light of this farcical situation.
Whether one regards the artwork as good, bad or ugly, and whether one appreciates its satire or not, political pressure to censor freedom of speech is a “no-no” no matter which way you look at it. Shame on you ANC for using Brett Murray, a seasoned and critical artist, as a scapegoat for a larger political agenda!
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.
Rose B. Simpson Embeds Ancestral Histories in Clay
She has taken clay and used it to recall its ancestral roots in Pueblo culture and address the present history of postcolonial recovery and ongoing trauma.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Quiet Paintings at a Time of Sensory Overload
Where Kim Mikyung’s process suggests an obsessive burrowing into the self, Kim Hyung-dae casts his gaze upward and outward into the sky.
Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?
Online representations of the activists lean White and thin, creating an image problem for the movement.
LSU School of Art Grants Highest MFA Stipends in the Southern US
With funded assistantships, full tuition waivers, and generous stipends, Louisiana State University helps students lay the groundwork for a successful lifelong art practice.
New “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign Misses the Mark
The recently unveiled design is meant to live alongside the iconic original and specifically address the city, but New Yorkers are not happy.
1,000+ Objects at The Met Linked to Antiquities Smugglers
A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed hundreds of works once owned by people accused of or convicted of antiquities crimes.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Offers Summer Art and Design Courses Online and On-Campus
Emerging and established artists can choose from over 50 Adult Continuing Education courses at one of the most influential art and design schools in the US.
Lunar Bead Necklace and Asteroid “Emoji” Head to Auction
Christie’s bizarre sale features other space rocks propped up on stands like sculptures.
Scientists Create the First Full Brain Map of a Fly
The achievement is a giant step toward understanding human neural networks.
IDSVA Offers a Non-Studio PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory
With no campus, the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts is a truly nomadic institution, existing everywhere our students and faculty are.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Closes Over Climate Protest
The institution shuttered in advance of an action planned for the 33rd anniversary of its infamous art heist.
Remembering the Migrants Who Died in US Detention
Artist Jackie Amézquita will lead a caravan of trucks with the names of the deceased to LA sites representing systems of oppression and solidarity for immigrants.