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!