|The Spear – Brett Murray|
Earlier this week in Johannesburg, South Africa an artist’s freedom of expression has been curtailed because of how he depicted the country’s president. Artist Brett Murray painted, 70-year-old President Zuma with his genitals exposed. The painting is called The Spear and was part of Murray’s exhibition called Hail to the Thief II at Goodman Gallery.
The exhibition showcases pieces that are clearly critical of the African National Congress (ANC) which is the party backing President Zuma. The ANC led the fight against apartheid prior to forming into a formal political party. To many in South Africa, this makes the current depiction of President Zuma an affront to Black South Africans’ dignity because the artist is a White South African.
On May 22nd, The Spear was defaced by two people that were not working together. The painting has been taken down because of it and the image of the painting was removed from the Gallery’s website. Over 2,000 people marched on Tuesday, May 29th to protest the images and the criticism of the ANC president. Mapule Kgomo said, “I hate whites passionately after that painting,” she added. “I am so hurt.” (Johannesburg AP 5/29/12)
Voice of America writes: “ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe made it clear to protesters outside the Goodman Gallery, and to the country, that what his party wants, they can often get.
“Your power has removed that painting from the website of City Press and from the gallery,” said Mantashe. “It has forced an apology from both the Goodman Gallery and Brett Murray, it has forced an apology from the City Press. That is your power.”
“I am not a racist,” Murray said in an affidavit filed in the court case, which is still under way. “I do not produce art with an intention to hurt, humiliate or insult.” (Johannesburg AP 5/29/12)
We all know the saying, absolute power corrupts absolutely. In this case, the power of free speech/expression in a region that is still healing from the deep wounds of apartheid, this painting was not in the best interests of anyone involved.
As creative artists, we all have a duty to ingest the social trends and political rumbles of our times and regurgitate them in meaningful and poignant ways that will incite progressive communication. While that may be my interpretation of the creative ideal, I think many would agree that a White artist depicting the Black president with his pants down is lacking in good taste and maligns the dignity of the man in question and by association, the ANC. And, because of the country’s historical racial conflicts, this bashing of President Zuma creates extreme personal identification with him by Black South Africans thereby creating the current public outcry.
Jackson Mthembu, an ANC spokesperson said even though the artwork had been ruined, the ANC wanted the gallery to remove the artwork. “That picture represents an apartheid mentality of domination. It may not be complete anymore but that mentality remains and we must deal with that.” (Mail & Guardian 5/29/12)
Ultimately, I am a US-born Caribbean-American female. I totally understand the right to freedom of speech and expression but I also understand weighing the political currents (and undercurrents). Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Brett Murray, wherever you are, remember the lessons taught to you by your parents about the basics of human interaction…play nice in the sandbox, or else some kid will throw sand in your eyes.