BY BRETT MURRAY
In all honesty this book represents nothing more than the end result of a massive mid-life crisis. It was either do this book or get a Harley Davidson and a grow ponytail and trawl the bars on Long Street. I am still not sure I made the right decision.
The myth where I place myself outside of conventional cultural paradigms, David throwing stones at Goliath, should have been exposed for the fraud that it is a long time ago. Ultimately this should have become apparent when I discovered that my work was being taught at high schools, as part of the syllabus. I should have realised then that I am no longer a dissident, a young anarchist, a subversive agitator rattling the cages of the establishment. I am the establishment!! I have been bought by the Palace! The Ché Guevara of the Suburbs. Have I sold out or just bought in?
I am not sure, but I now represent the old folks boogie. The ageing Barry Manilow of the visual dancefloor. Hopefully with this book, the young and edgy might find something to remix and catapult me onto the 21st century’s dance-card. I can only dream.
Growing up I would always look at the older generation of artists and say to myself, with the arrogance of youth and after many beers: “What wankers!” With this book I have become one of those wankers. So indulge me a bit as I savour and share with you my few final dribbles. And, who knows, there might be something left in this aging, pretend-pretend iconoclast’s last dying twitches that could still drizzle on a few parades…
A few years ago I might have called Jacana and asked if they were interested in publishing a coffee table book of my work. They would have asked” Brett who…?” And this would have been an appropriate response. I was… you see… massive only in Woodstock. So it is with deep irony that I have to thank the current custodians of our democracy for the leg up they have given me in terms of name recognition… if anything.
A few months ago I was having my blood taken by a large grumpy and officious looking Xhosa woman for a middle age prostate issue when…and I am petrified of needles thanks to a few lumbar punctures I received at an impressionable age… she plunges a needle into my arm and asks me sternly if I am “That Brett Murray?”
What would you do? My poephol puckered and I denied… denied… denied…. She wasn’t convinced… and asked me repeatedly… “Are you sure you are not That Brett Murray?!?”… Until I finally faced my ultimate fear like a man and sheepishly confessed… “Yes it’s me… I am him!”
She guffawed, smiled broadly and said that she had just been talking about The Spear thing with her nursing friends that very morning…and invited them all in to my bloodletting for introductions. They were delighted to meet me and we went on a sad and funny tirade against the powers that be, all wishing me good fortune and a peaceful future, with huge bosomy hugs, nogal! A close call. Thank God I don’t live in KwaZulu-Natal.
The idea for a book came from many threads and thoughts. A part of it might be to mark an end of a period of production… or maybe to contextualise the recently contentious events. Or just something to make my mother proud. The comic darkness that I often attempt to mess with in my work is not nature… rather nurture. My family make The Simpsons look like The Swiss Family Robinson.
My parents can take full responsibility for the cover pics of the book, both back and front. For the back cover: I was 6 years old and I was cast as a Zulu warrior for a school play, as were a few of my friends. Being at an all white school in Pretoria our parents had to transform us from lily-white to Zulu black. This was done with no irony or reflection …rather as a matter of course. Troubled times indeed! Deeply problematic and tragic… but also comic in hindsight.
Regarding nurture: Dress-up was always interesting at the Murray household. I went to the Jewish Menorah Nursery School, also in Pretoria. I am as Jewish as the Pope. Purim is an annual celebration where Jewish children dress up: often in masks as Princes and Princesses and the like, for a holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to destroy them. My mom, in her dark wisdom, dressed me up as an Arab and ushered me in. Politically shrewd and challenging… or just plain insensitive? Not sure. Needless to say… I was hurled out.
Many years later I was travelling with Sanell, my wife, in Italy researching my Crocodile Tears show. This body of work commingles the pomp and ceremony of European High Renaissance with that of the Mbeki era of sycophancy and cant, where the overriding question still remains: Do we own or storm the Bastille? I was imagining a kind of failed African Renaissance flavoured with the sanctimoniousness of the shameful era of Aids denialism. On the show I presented many ostentatious images of the privileged and the powerful. The figures were in full Renaissance finery, but now the white faces of expediency where transformed into the black faces of entitlement.
I was refining these themes when I remembered the images of myself in black face as a Zulu warrior, one of which I had previously used as an invitation to the show called White Boy Sings The Blues. I wanted to return the favour and now dress my parents up in black face and take a few pics of them watching rugby on their double-bed in a small flat in Fish Hoek. A confused pseudo-African Royal Family of the New South Africa… with Brandy and Tabs in hand-not sure where it was going- but an image I couldn’t get out of my head. My father once astutely said to me, with a sprinkling of racism, apropos his sad economic state of affairs and related to the privileges he had received in South Africa, that he…quote… “ was a waste of white skin…” where his colour just barely allowed him a foot- hold into the middle class. While visiting Florence we received an email from a friend saying he was sorry to hear that my dad had passed away.
It was the Tab that finally got him, I am sure. Bad news travels quickly… so by the time I called home it was only two hours after his passing. I got through to an informal wake. We are not religious. My Dad was an architect and thought he was God. I had a very teary conversation with my remaining family.
After a while, grieving with my mom on the phone, she related to me that everyone was around my dads body… talking to him… crying and laughing at the retelling of the many colourful stories that followed him wherever he went, when there was a reflective silence in the room. Maybe for once the TV was off. My mom noticed a change in my dad… he was a big fellow… the Tab didn’t do anything for his huge girth… My Mom notices he is changing colour… going a bit yellow and asks everyone present: “Guess who dad looks like now?… Homer Simpson!” At which point everyone cracks up and roars with laughter… as do I in my mom’s long distance retelling.
Sick and wrong or sick and right? I am not sure… but this is my genetic make up. Using humour to get through. So in memory of my father, and of both my parent’s guilt and innocence in turning me into a Zulu warrior years earlier, I black-faced myself instead. And this is the front cover.
Choosing the cover was difficult. More so with The Spear saga being still so close and hanging over me. This image had been used on the cover of Art South Africa a few years ago. I was, and still remain, confident of both its awkward nuances and my intentions with this photograph, particularly in the context of the rest of the works I produced for the show. But what The Spear saga has unveiled is a self-consciousness, a cross questioning and a doubt in my practice, an acute self-censorship which is exactly what the current crop at the helm would want. Pre-censorship. Not that I am ignorant of the complexities of images of blackface.
I mailed Jacana with a few of these misgivings:
“The cover, as you know, has been a worry for me. My default setting is to be provocative… so me in blackface ticks this box. My concern is that it will be read as proof to the naysayers of my innate racism. Much of my prevarication is definitely post Spear, which is of deep concern for me going forward. I had no problems with this image being used a few years ago on the Art SA cover. Although the blackface trope is deeply problematic… I am the butt of the joke in this work. It will, in any case, be seen by some as the continuation of postcolonial arrogance. Is it not a bit Leon Schuster?”
Jacana ignored this cry for help! Thanks Bridget.
It is this double guessing that I need to challenge vigorously going forward. Oddly enough…and tellingly I think… artists do reflect and change their minds and grow and fine-tune. Ironically, there were two works that were on the original Hail to The Thief Show in Cape Town that, after putting the works up and listening to various responses to them, seemed to me to fail in tone and were ineffective in reflecting what I was trying to articulate. The first was directly aimed at Zuma and after considerations came across to me as a cheap shot about education and culture. This is ironic in light of the unfolding events. The second work could be read as misdirected and metaphorically over reached musings on venality. These were, in hindsight, failed works, so I decided not to show them in Joburg on the show that caused all the problems. This is the natural way to hone your craft. To present and to reflect and to cull and to shift. To pull the various threads together, and to tighten. Like a stand up comic’s routine, my own assessments and presentation of my work is always shifting and changing. This remains the privilege and sanctuary of the artist producing the work, and the potential cullings and distillations that these reflections might effect must be the exclusive domain of the artist, certainly not that of government organs and institutions or current political parties or factions.
That a few sarcastic T-shirts put together by high school students have recently offended the current crop in power is telling.
Transgressive ideas and imagery push and shift boundaries and if effectively used and charged can result in cathartic understandings and fresh reflections. Works and ideas that divide and challenge are interesting to me. I am drawn to this thin edge of the wedge, but not exclusively. With these works the possibilities for discussion are often effected.
A while ago, in 1997, the Italian stand up comic Roberto Benigni imagined and directed the beautiful and uncomfortable parable, the film, Life is Beautiful. Set in Italy at the time of the rise in fascism and the incarceration of Italian Jews into concentration camps, the film reflected on the true story of Roberto’s father’s concentration camp memories.
In the film, when a family is sent to the concentration camps and the family is split up, Guido, the father figure, uses a game to explain features of the concentration camp that would otherwise be terrifying for his young son: the guards are vicious only because they want to win a tank for themselves; the dwindling numbers of children (who are being killed by the camp guards) are only hiding in order to score more points so they can win the game. He puts off his son’s requests to end the game and return home by convincing him that they are in the lead for the tank, and need only wait a short while before they can return home in it. Despite being surrounded by the misery, sickness, and death at the concentration camp, Joshua does not question this fiction because of his father’s convincing performance and his own innocence. Gripping… gruelling and darkly funny.
The film caused massive ructions within the Jewish communities. It seriously offended some liberal critics and the reception to it by various holocaust communities was divided. Some thought it was an effective metaphor and a story hauntingly told through humour and allegory, others were disgusted that the horrors of the Nazi’s could be so insensitively portrayed and ultimately debase the memories of the deaths of their loved ones. Marches and boycotts were the order of the day. There are no right opinions. I loved the film. It won the Best Foreign Film of the year
at the Oscars that year.
The point is, it is up to artists and playwrights, filmmakers and poets and the like to attempt to tell these uncomfortable stories, or these stories uncomfortably, to invent, to re-imagine, to construct metaphors and to be able to do this without fear and without the added burden of an abusive government with its attempts to censor and sanitize these and, by proxy, all ideas.
As the author Hanif Kureishi has written: “You can never know what your words may turn out to mean for yourself or someone else; or what the world they make will be like. Anything could happen. The problem with silence is that we know exactly what it will be like.”
I am my own worst critic. I am as battle weary as all of us are regarding the meta-narratives of this troubled country. I so don’t want to see another film about the B-I-G issues in South Africa, see a play about apartheid oppression or read a book about the continuing poverty of many South Africans or, as one of my recent press statement reads: “Murray’s bronzes, etchings, paintings and silk-screens form part of a vitriolic and succinct censure of bad governance and are his attempts to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite”… Don’t you just want to run screaming and go and see Shrek in 3D? I do. But this is the uncomfortable monkey on my back.
It is what I do and have to do and will return to again and again. And although it might seem that what social commentators are producing, are reflections of what is happening “out there” exclusively, pointing accusatory fingers, and to some it might look like a gallery has been lambasted with wet newspapers leaving behind only traces of current headlines and popular graphics, all the work we do is driven by an internal, almost therapeutic and private process.
In reflecting on what is unfolding we hope to articulate a very personal understanding and an idiosyncratic psychological sense of place, and we begin to describe who we are with this anomalous vision. Paradoxically through this critique and comic exposure, we actually begin to define a preferred ideal in which we would like to live. Autobiographical by default. As there should be: in this process there is a constant re-calibration and fine-tuning of who I am, where I am, my privilege, my class and inevitably, I suppose, my whiteness. And this is all good.
More than 40 years ago, in Pretoria, I was busy in an art class with a paper folding, origami type project. I keenly set about making a paper figure. I produced what I thought was a great example of the possibilities of folded paper and shared this with all and sundry. This was many, many years before the internet… but my work and copies of it spread through the school corridors and from classroom to classroom, jumping from suburb to suburb via lift clubs and bus routes and into neighbourhood schools and finally arriving at family homes with a speed equal to the copy and paste of currently shared files.
(I showed the audience an approximation of what I had made many years before… a paper cut out figure of a man in a suit… when you pull on his legs an oversized penis folds out.)
My piece looked like this…I was 8 years old…. another dick joke.
Needless to say the authorities tracked this down to source… me… and I was beaten by the our class teacher. He had special canes with hosepipes covering sections of cropped fishing rods, fitted with bicycle grip handles. I am sure that if I really concentrate hard, I have memories of seeing the indications of a flange twitch in his trousers with every lashing he gave me. Nice job if you are into that sort of thing.
Years later when a book was published revealing the membership details of the Broederbond, it came as no surprise to me that our class teacher’s name was amongst the other apartheid beneficiaries listed. Ironically, I can now hardly differentiate between the ANC’s Chancellor House, a kind of official avenue for state sanctioned corruption, where huge deals favour the cronies within the new predatory elite, and the Broederbond, which functioned similarly and achieved indistinguishable corrupt ends.
Humour comes in different packages and sizes. Arthur Koestler wrote a great book called The Act Of Creation that basically looks at scientific discovery and compares this to humour and the invention of comedy. He postulates that scientific discovery is often the chance conjoining of two separate scientific paradigms, the unexpected merging of previously unrelated sights of enquiry. At the moment of this scientific insight is the cry of “Eureka”. Similarly, comic invention applies the same principle with the unexpected fusion of unlikely scenarios being celebrated through laughter or sniggers. These humorous inventions run the full range from the one-liner to the metaphorical novel, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The more critical might view The Spear as probably the least sophisticated of all of these constructions. It is a dick joke after all…
They might add that The Spear, which appears wide in girth, at the end of the day, lacks real conceptual depth… and is probably short of staying power.
The critical are a well-hung jury. And depending on my mood… I might or might not agree with them.
That the work hit its mark is not in doubt though.
It’s just a pity that all the work I have produced up to The Spear, and all the work I will make going forward will always be seen in relation to this event. This could be an albatross around my neck going forward… or just an irritation… depending on how I deal with it, I suppose.
It nearly didn’t see the light of day. I was ambivalent about adding the dick to the painting. I thought then, and still do now, that it might have been a stronger and a more layered work without it. Specifically in the context of the rest of the show where I was parodying the pseudo- Soviet iconography and Comrade-Viva-Viva language of the new pigs at the trough. MasterCard Marxists, at best. But I stuck with it once it was painted more out of laziness than anything else.
If I had given the painting an erection, which I was considering, I am not sure I would be here to tell this sorry tale.
I have made a few dick jokes along the way. Years ago, in about 1983, I did a sculptural portrait of a friend. His testosterone levels were legendary. We all loved him for it… mostly. He wore, with honesty… how can I put it nicely? … his balls on his sleeve. I did a portrait of him as a set of such balls, in high-gloss pink, with a dick as a nose so that the whole set up, with a ginger hair arrangement, looked like a face. Funny… maybe… a bit harsh … definitely…but hey?! I was probably channelling my jealousy of his formidable success rate. He didn’t sue me or beat me up. Our friendship has lasted.
In 1986 I produced a sculpture called King for a body of work looking at patriarchy and the military. I sculpted an image of implied onanistic pleasures, where a young king simultaneously sucks on a pacifier while hosting a small erection, metaphorically answering the call to “Go and fuck yourself”. In 1989 I produced a work called Voortrekker. A direct translation would be “front puller” or rather “wanker” in English, of a monkey with a gun on his back playing with his dick. I revisited this image recently, without the gun, and called it One Party State. What goes around comes around, it seems. I have given a sunburnt Bart Simpson an erection in a work with the moniker I love Africa. There is an intended ambiguity in its reading. Is this cultural relationship about rape or about consensual pleasures? I have recently done two French poodles nobbing each other called Power and Patronage… two pigs rutting away called At The Trough. A poodle with an erection called Mr. Entitled. A poodle with large boobs called Mrs. Entitled. And on and on… There are hundreds, if not thousands, of explicit sexual metaphors in the history of art… I certainly didn’t invent this wheel.
The Kafkaesque events that unfolded regarding The Spear seemed to have been scripted by the Marx Brothers on acid. That is not: Harpo, Chico, Groucho and Zeppo… but rather Jacob, Blade, Jackson, and Gwede.
The script included a court case.
I can easily deconstruct and expose my own craft as that of a devious racist right wing apologist’s. These self-critical insights are the devils I listen to when I make my work and which I need to listen to when some of these works balance unsteadily on the satirist’s paradox, where there might appear to be contradictory celebrations of what you are actually attempting to expose. So I was apprehensive… to say the least.
I received the State’s legal documents from our attorneys. These included amongst others a file containing full-colour images of The Spear and all of the Hail To the Thief works on show. With a combination of fear and delight I saw that Number One had to go through my entire show, work for work, and sign each page and image in his prepared affidavit.
Talk about “speaking truth to power”… directly.
As it turns out the State’s lawyers could have benefited from my insights. The case, which was set out at the onset to last three days was given short shrift by the three judges and ended rather dramatically. We watched this unfold live on TV at Zapiro’s house. He was a sounding board for me throughout this saga. He had been down this absurd rocky road before… court cases and death threats. We also shared legal teams. He had a few Zuma court cases pending and was interested to see how this fight panned out.
Watching this mini drama on TV I had my first whiskey in 12 years. Purely medicinal! It was a large jug.
As the court case unfolded I was receiving SMSes from our legal team from inside the court room: “Did you hear that… the judge says your works are powerful” and “Their case is falling apart and we haven’t even started our arguments yet” and on and on.
Nazeer Cassim, one of Zuma’s personal lawyers, had been trying behind the scenes, to get the ANC to withdraw the case, but with no luck. On the day of the court case he approached the ANC protagonists and said that Zuma wanted to settle. It seems that, for whatever reasons, Zuma didn’t want the case to go ahead.
A faction within the ruling party could see an opportunity for political gain and pressed on despite this.
We can only speculate why Zuma wanted out: The fanning of the flames of racism by a faction within the ANC and the resulting threats of violence was unhinging the country and this was becoming unmanageable. Maybe because the state had a weak case and Zuma had better legal opinion. Maybe Zuma didn’t want his dirty laundry publicly aired, again. Or he is a very, very weak president and that the seat of power lies at Lithuli House. Probably a combination of all… Whatever.
Just before the start of the trial there was another call made, apparently to Zuma, by the ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu insisting that the ANC were going ahead with the case despite the president wanting out.
Interesting. Especially in the light of the preceding court events where it was quickly pointed out by the judges that neither The Office of the President nor The ANC as an organisation could be part of the legal arguments in the unfolding case as it was ultimately between the artist, myself, and Zuma as an individual, not even as the president! So with those institutions playing no further part in the proceedings and with the knowledge that Zuma, in his personal capacity, did not want the case to go ahead at all and with the ANC’s Advocate Malindi being dropped in the legal deep end by the conflicting ANC factions, and not presenting arguments that the work or my intentions were racist, which should have been the cornerstone of their arguments… Malindi buckled under the pressure and broke down in tears. It wasn’t going to be easy for him. He had conceded after some tough questioning by one of the judges that “It is not a racial issue.”
The court was adjourned and both legal teams where immediately summonsed into the Judges chambers to discuss a way forward.
Our legal team where demanding to be given an opportunity to present our arguments before the close of the days proceedings… but the ANC where running scared and would have none of it.
I felt for their attorney. He was caught between a rock and a hard case. He has my utmost respect for the sacrifices he made on all of our behalves. He spent two years on Robben Island. Advocate George Bizos, one of our few remaining heroes, describes him as a gentle spirit. The subsequent racially driven, face-saving spin by the ANC that it was for Malindi a reminder of his court case when he was on trial as one of the Delmas Treason trialists, where he was cross-questioned aggressively by a white Afrikaans judge, was only half the truth. If that.
And then in the inimitable words of the Secretary General of the ANC Gwede Mantashe: “What we can’t win in the courts we will win in the streets!”. So much for our constitutional democracy.
Death threats against the protagonists escalated. Lisa Esser, the gallery owner, received threats from people claiming to be MK veterans that her gallery would be bombed. She employed bodyguards because of personal death threats as well. A call was made for the boycott of the City Press… a strategy that was used as a tool during “the struggle”. Ferial Haffajee ultimately capitulated under the pressure and took the image off the City Press website as demanded by theANC. She would later say that she, and all of us, where played and with hindsight would never cede to the bullying tactics of the state again.
Journalists were then, and are still now, scathing of her decision. In her defence… we were all incredibly vulnerable and it’s difficult for others to comprehend the pressures and fears that had enveloped all of us at the time. I always thought that the press was the cornerstone of this battle and should have taken centre stage. An unhindered and free press is crucial for our democracy. Artistic freedom of expression, although obviously important, seems like a sideshow in our context. So although I was as disappointed as others, I understood where Ferial’s decision came from.
That the painting was used for expedient political ends was obvious, and the State’s legal team virtually conceded this to various protagonists. The whole saga was 90% politics and 10% art.
Following the unfolding saga in the media, I was encouraged to see commentators come out immediately in support of the painting and in favour of an unfettered freedom of speech, as is constitutionally enshrined. Mondli Makanya, the Sunday Times columnist: Pierre de Vos, the constitutional law expert: Anton Harber, the journalism professor and founding editor of the Weekly Mail, Justice Malala, a sharp political and social commentator and also Ferial Haffajee. They were all scathing about the State’s reactions to the painting.
I remained silent throughout the ordeal because I instinctively thought that this would be wise. I also just wanted to listen. An out-of-context and angry soundbite would not further our cause either… and certainly appearing with the shrill Napoleon wannabe Blade Nzimande and Debora Patta in a debate, live on 3rd Degree… which I was invited to be part of… would have been fatal. I would rather have brain surgery with no anaesthetics.
I was, at the time, vacillating between tears of frustration and a potentially violent anger… things that do not come across well on TV… so I declined this, and many other local and international media invitations from New Delhi… Helsinki… New York… London… Sydney and many, many other requests for interviews.
So for the idiots in the art-world who have said that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt…I have no words.
I was as interested as everyone was in the various debates and positions that were discussed and taken regarding the painting. The more measured conversations ultimately came down to where freedom of expression ends and the right to dignity begins. I am well aware of our shameful history that necessitated this right to dignity to be included in our eloquent constitution. The arguments that the work perpetuated postcolonial visions of oversexed black males are equally important. We all have to be constantly reminded of these issues and our context.
Ironically I was busy with another work at about the same time as The Spear that articulates some of these issues. This is a text work and ventilates what has been called elsewhere: “Poor-nography” and the post-colonial gaze and reads: What is it about photographs of black men, centrally framed, looking back at you from desolate surroundings, that gives you a neo-colonial half-lazy?…
Again the sexual innuendo…I can’t help myself!!
So I didn’t go in blind. Knowing these issues I decided to bite the bullet and express directly what I understand
to be musings on the venal abuse of power in a patriarchy that accommodates a president’s well-documented carnal curiosity.
I found it informative that once the states propaganda machine had been amped up, and once the calls of racism had been sparked and fanned, and in the tinder dry context of poverty stricken South Africa, these flames would catch… this was populist propagandising at its very core… I found it interesting that all of those commentators who had unequivocally supported the painting to begin with, started to hedge their bets and were now calling for a freedom
of expression with added caveats and provisos. The right to dignity, and the like.
J.M. Coetzee wrote in his essay Taking Offence, and rather appropriately in the context of The Spear: “ A censor pronouncing a ban…is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up. The spectacle is ridiculous, so ridiculous that he is soon a victim not only of his unruly member but of pointing fingers, laughing voices. That is why the institution of censorship has to surround itself with secondary bans on the infringement of its dignity.”
You don’t find a cure for cancer in the comments section of newspaper websites. However… I did find it informative to read what the general public was saying on these, and other platforms. And although there was much vitriolic flag waving and threats of violence, there were equal amounts of support. This was also enlightening in that the fault lines of these debates and discussions were not based on race. This despite the State’s attempt to colour the saga accordingly.
A social media message, which ruffled a few feathers when it was sent out by Tselane Tambo, the late ANC President Oliver Tambo’s daughter, read:
“So the Pres JZ has had his portrait painted and he doesn’t like it.
Do the poor enjoy poverty?
Do the unemployed enjoy hopelessness?
Do those who can’t get housing enjoy homelessness?
He must get over it. No one is having a good time. He should inspire the reverence he craves. This portrait is what
he inspired. Shame neh!”
Harsh words indeed.
Two of South Africa’s senior artists, who I share a gallery with and whose work and political positioning I respect and admire, both are white, had conflicting positions on The Spear issue. One called me and said he thought I should take the work down, that my point had been made… and the other thought I should not buckle under the pressure and succumb to the bullies and that we should take it to the Constitutional Court.
The support I received and the hate mail I received through my website were equally divided between the various race groups.
There is a now huge gray area and this can only be positive going forward in our new democracy.
It’s just a pity that there was not a more measured response by the State and a call for discussion rather than the attempts to brutally suppress the freedom of speech through anger manufacturing and political grandstanding.
But in all honesty… surely the powers that be have a country to run.
Education in crisis, unemployment…housing, health…and lest we not forget …rampant corporate and government driven corruption.
The Marikana slaughter was around the corner. These are the issues of the day. Not a small rant by a disillusioned and angry artist. Shrug this off and do what governments do… govern.
I believe the defacing of the painting was staged. At the time it happened I was actually relieved — it seemed to lower the temperature considerably. I was concerned that there might be violence and possible killings that I didn’t want in any way to be associated with, or a victim of. And although a settlement was finally agreed to, I still believe, fundamentally and to my core, that there are no compromises with regards the freedom of expression. This, unfortunately, would include us having to listen to the views of Boere Volkstad blogs, old school apartheid believers, Orania separatists and the like, spewing out their racist nonsense… and all of us having to defend their rights to do so.
Noam Chomsky put it succinctly when he said: “If we don’t believe in the freedom of expression for those who we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
As I have said earlier, I was keen to see the case go to the Constitutional Court. I articulated this to our lawyers through a haze of industrial strength tranquilizers. We were also all anxious to get out of the hell that this relentless public scrutiny had become for us. Our legal team received information; I am guessing from someone within the state, that all of our phones where being tapped in order to monitor our legal strategy. We were warned to use safe phones. Sound familiar? (Those in power were not uniform in the condemnation of the painting… but all were silent…) My assistant of 17 years and his family were receiving unpleasant and continued violent threats from some members of his community in Khayelitsha. The spokesperson for the Shembe Church, representing five million worshipers, publicly called for my public stoning to death… it was serious. We had to leave our house and studios for a safe place. We were terrified.
I had started planning to move my family out the country if the case was to drag out and go to the Constitutional Court. The eventual settlement, however disappointing from a principled perspective, was pragmatic and allowed us all to get on with our lives as best we could.
The march on the gallery was nothing more than the protagonists saving face after a brutal beating in the High Court. They insisted on going ahead with this march while seemingly scrambling and desperate to negotiate the settlement. The march was nevertheless unbearable for me to watch. I was deeply troubled by the message that was being sent out about our country, both locally and abroad…but more so on a very personal level. Those images were deeply scarring and remain so.
The more cynical would say that bussing in 4500 unemployed people from Limpopo, at the drop of a hat, with promises of a T-shirt, a placard and a lunch voucher is more an expose of the new elites inability to generate employment for our people and the cynical exploitation of these vulnerable citizens for political agendas, than anything else.
A few months after the saga came to an end I had an interesting conversation with retired Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. He argues for a culture of nation building and celebration. I argue that criticizing bad governance and questionable leadership is as patriotic and builds nations equally. Senior Council Jules Browde, who was a founding member of the Lawyers for Human Rights in the ’80s was also part of the conversation and summed it up cogently: He said: “If you can write it… you can paint it”.
That the State’s apologists can’t decipher irony was made beautifully clear when they were set up in front of my artwork called Manifesto at the Goodman Gallery for the public announcement of The Spear settlement.
The work spells out in large red and gold letters:
PROMISES PROMISES PROMISES
It’s my favourite memory of the sorry saga…
Where I felt we had capitulated, Albie said that the settlement should be seen as a victory for us and for the freedom of expression. I was not so sure. A few months later, the night before Zuma’s cases against Zapiro were to start,
a settlement was fashioned and agreed to by the state. I think that the State, on this issue, has been silenced… for now… however which way they want to spin it. So Albie might be right.
Surely part of the presidential manual is that you will be up for public scrutiny from society and that this would include lampooning and uncomfortable comedic satire, accurate or not. In all democracies this is grist for the mill. The cabinet should get out more often. They would see and hear across the country scathing and tasteless jokes being told about them by all and sundry. Ayanda Mabulu’s paintings are but one example. Trevor Noah, the stand up comic, does a sketch, which predates The Spear by a few years and has him on stage mimicking the Presidents faltering reading speech patterns, hauling out his, that is, Zuma’s metaphorical dick… and slapping the faces of cabinet ministers with it, much to the hilarity of a packed and demographically accurate audience. Now that is a transgressive image if ever there was one! Clinton got the treatment. Berlusconi gets the same, as did Prince Charles. Those in public office will continue to suffer the consequences of an exposed Achilles Dick. Look at the troubles it has caused Vavi recently. For satirists a president’s sexual peccadilloes are manna from Heaven. A bit like shooting fish in a barrel.
So, finally, regarding the sorry saga…. It was with equal measures of anger and disappointment that I have expressed my contempt for some in the new regime who are undermining the victories that have been achieved through their corruption and guile and who are effectively desecrating the graves of our struggle heroes. Political correctness and self-censorship are not cornerstones of effective political satire. If they were it would not be called satire, rather “Ironic Praise Singing.” Parody is part of the satirist’s arsenal and it is often through this that I hope to expose the new pigs at the trough. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, nothing is sacred.
That some faction of a political party saw fit to jackboot through a gallery space and call for the burning of an exhibition and suppress a newspaper editor’s independence and by proxy attempt to censure the ideas of artists, playwrights, poets, film makers, social commentators, stand up comics and the like, and coming so soon after the apartheid regimes attempts to do the same, this was eye opening, short-sighted and ultimately chilling.
The silence of those within the echelons of power when there were public incitements made for the killing of some of us, and when private death threats were made public, renders them all complicit in the attempts to subvert the constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression and in the brutal suppression of dissent.
I have received many bits of correspondence from many quarters. Two stand out.
A Supreme Court of Appeal Judge sought out my email address and wrote to me. It must be noted that the author in question is no apartheid lackey. The judge is not white either, and had this to say to me:
“Because your case is no longer proceeding – and there is no danger of my having to recuse myself for expressing my solidarity with one of the protagonists in the litigation over The Spear – it would not be inappropriate for me to express my solidarity with you.
The basic idea that you convey in your ‘Goodman exhibition’ – the decent of the governing party into venality – is felt by many of our compatriots and I have to say that the conduct of some of the temporary custodians of the governing party over your painting was nothing less than shameful. They, not you, have lost their way.
By contrast your contribution has been consistent – from you’re principled opposition to Apartheid to living by the values which that struggle taught you.
I wish you well and salute your courage.”
As we seem to be living in a script that embraces simultaneously both tragedy and farce, here is another bit of correspondence I received at about the same time that reads:
“Dear Mr. Murray
We do much of our work globally in 25 countries in brand strategy, events, PR, sponsorship and digital content management.
We are exploring the idea of partnering with you as part of a new product packaging for a lifestyle intimacy brand. This is part of a global campaign that is geared towards changing and improving attitudes towards sexual intercourse as a pleasureful and a natural human endeavour. We hope to drive positive behaviour towards not only the brand but sexual intercourse as a human experience.
The idea is to brief you to design the new product packaging for condoms, lubes and other associated intimacy products, which will be revealed in September 2012.”
I cried laughing.
We seem to do this quite a lot.