Culture wars: penis gevaar
Steven C Dubin’s new book, Spearheading Debate, studies SA’s most explosive culture wars. This edited extract goes behind the scenes of the painting that caused all the trouble
The Spear controversy exemplifies a classic case of the politics of diversion. Or, as Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers characterised it, this was an instance of “manufactured rage”. The artist, Brett Murray, himself branded it “manufactured flag-waving and politicking”.
In the run-up to the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung, President Jacob Zuma hoped to be re-elected and attacking this irreverent depiction provided a rich opportunity for his supporters to deflect attention from the incumbent’s shortcomings.
This is an example of a proxy battle, fought over a work of art, but about much deeper matters.
Both Essers and Murray were blindsided by the uproar. Essers was on maternity leave when she received an urgent call from her staff: the ANC was seeking court intervention to have the painting removed, and news crews were besieging the Parkwood gallery.
The Spear that is now familiar to a broad swath of the South African public very nearly did not exist. Murray explains: “I painted it without a dick, I thought it was interesting enough, in the context of the other work looking at Soviet memorabilia and the pseudoSoviet kind of rabblerousing that happens here in the name of the people, but actually it’s for the few, the chosen few.
And then I kind of, as is my nature, I just wanted to make something a little more provocative.”
South African artists have been scorned, and even threatened, in the past. Steve Hilton-Barber was menaced over his photographs of initiates, as was Beezy Bailey for his temporary transformation of a sculpture of Louis Botha into an abakwethu.
Similarly, Kendall Geers and the Goodman Gallery were intimidated because of Geers’ Fort Klapperkop intervention, as was painter Yiull Damaso for his imagining of a Madiba autopsy.
Even so, no South African artist has been the target of such a sustained and vicious campaign of threats as was Murray. One letter-to-the editor writer declared: “(Murray) must be prosecuted and tortured in a ferocious manner.”
Twitter, Facebook, and radio shows were additional sites where the thirst for blood was registered, including suggestions of necklacing.
At one point, Murray closed his studio and he and his family fled Cape Town. Essers felt compelled to hire a personal bodyguard.
She received calls declaring “a white person has to die for what’s happened” and someone wrote “traitor” all over a car owned by one of her black staff members.
Murray reflects that these comments were “screaming and vitriolic and violent and threatening”. He sadly reports that his assistant of 16 years, a respected elder within his home community, also became a target of intimidation.
“My first real concern prior to my own was actually his, when this whole thing blew up, is what is going to happen to Shadrack and his family?”
The notion that “dignity” was compromised by an artwork surfaced as far back as 1996 in the controversy over Kaolin Thompson’s UsefulObjects, as well as with Zuma’s lawsuit against Zapiro.
Simply put, the ranks of proponents and detractors of the artwork cut across racial categories; there were not hidebound receptors that ensured any one person’s response. “Zulu culture” is not monolithic any more than “black culture” or “white culture” is.
The explosion over The Spear dissipated as quickly as it detonated. But the episode has secured as important a place in South Africa’s democratic history as other notable events that have brought citizens together or pushed them apart dramatically.
Did it hit its mark and bring the president to book for his failures and misdeeds, or did it unintentionally confirm Zuma’s status as a target of disgruntled constituents and a victim of political intrigue, thereby boosting his popularity in the minds of some?
Like so much contemporary art, which is capable of spawning multiple interpretations, both consequences are likely true.
» The book was launched in Joburg on Thursday and is published by Jacana