The following paper is an extract from the thesis titled Whiteness and Authenticity in South African
Visual Culture. Jessica Draper is a doctoral student reading a practice led D.Phil. in Fine Art at The
Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford.
A SPEAR OF CONTENTION
By Jessica Lindiwe Draper
Ideological whiteness1 has been differently framed in a South African context, largely because it is a
minority-white society. In contrast to majority-white societies where ideologies of whiteness exist
for the most part unconsciously, the apartheid regime in South Africa ensured that everyone was
acutely aware of whiteness via mechanisms such as ‘whites only’ signage2. If whiteness has
generally been confronted and subverted by being made explicit, then what would it mean to go
about exposing something that is already so categorically present? Apartheid devoted nearly fifty
years to making whiteness visible, and it would therefore appear that in South Africa, this strategy
of revelation reaffirms racial difference rather than opposing it. Hence the dilemma of the white
South African artist: ignoring whiteness perpetuates invisible advantage, and acknowledging it
reifies a claim to apartheid’s visible advantage.
The way in which these ideologies are translated into the visual arts is contested, with critics such as
Okwui Enwezor claiming that white South African artists possess an overly determined fantasy of
identification with the black subject3. Because such readings are usually reduced to accusations of
racism, they dismiss any further analysis. For example, once judged to be racist (as will later be
seen in the discussion of Brett Murray’s The Spear), an artwork is no longer allowed to participate
in what might be considered as contemporary artistic dialogue; that is, its voice is silenced and
considered redundant. This type of situation generates an artistic pressure to accept and reify
normative constraints. In other words, if white South African artists want to remain active
participants in the dialogue as part of a validated group of South African artists, it appears that they
must adhere to a particular set of rules and regulate their expression.
A similar but more subtle pressure affects black South African artists. Stereotypes first provided by
the Western classification of African art, and then by the documentary-style photography so widely
practised during apartheid4, have generated an expectation on the part of international (and local)
artmarkets of seeing these images reproduced. In this way, Whiteness has contributed to the artistic
pressure to conform to such stereotypes, which are now so established that they function as valid
ideas of Africa and Africanness. Considering the recent nature of apartheid, it seems that many
South Africans are reluctant to relinquish these stereotyped yet triumphant images that were
necessarily internalised and internationalised during the struggle and therefore continue to hold
much emotional and political currency. Addressing race outside of these archetypes thus becomes
intermingled with feelings of anger, guilt and trauma, and therefore elicits subjectively extreme
responses as will be demonstrated in the writing to come.
These long-standing and still current public debates surrounding the validity of particular rights to
history and heritage “demonstrate the health and vitality of a political culture of critique and
counter-critique that was forged under the most difficult of circumstances and whose main
protagonists have often paid dearly for their beliefs” (Coombes 2003: 6). This culture of critique
continues as an important part of South African society, and has been an important tool in
rebuilding a national social imaginary, but is it possible that this productive discussion has reached a
point where it is inhibiting progress?
Negar Azimi (2011) speaks of the trend in contemporary art to follow such conventions. She argues
that, in an environment steeped in political correctness, some artists begin to create art that has the
appearance of protest art as a pre-emptive strike. In this way, artists succumb to the pressure of an
international market that calls for the repetition of historic conventions. Azimi describes how acts
of protest in contemporary political art have become less performative and more symbolic, and uses
the idea of a “Radical Chic” to illustrate how many privileged people in societies around the world
relate to subaltern causes. It has become fashionable to support a cause, though this seems to
manifest itself in a way that is “dislocated from reality” as people can be seen “raising [their] fist
from the safe distance of the computer, the cinema or the art gallery to ardently declare, that war
sucks!” (Azimi 2011). She goes on to accuse institutions of playing out their obsession with boxticking
rather than concerning themselves with what might be classed as “good art”, saying that
“rarely is the work of artists whose politics we don’t like featured” and that “these exhibitions
favour simplicity over complexity: they are ‘politically correct’” (Azimi 2011). Her argument is
that following such normative constraints allows for the concept of easy listening art that reflects
societal fads, creating an opportunity for back-slapping and fist-raising in token protest.
Although Azimi is speaking about art at an international level, this applies directly to the South
African context where it might be argued that the cultural pressure of political correctness threatens
to take precedence over freedom of expression5. The corollary is that an artist who is perceived to
have pushed against these constraints runs the risk of being rejected and excluded. The reflexive,
fluid moment that the country now finds itself in is what should make it possible for preconceived
archetypes to be questioned and eroded, but the culture of critical reflection that has proved so
historically effective has now become a cause for anxiety, both in the case of social interaction and
artistic production. Brett Murray is one example of an artist who has attempted to work against
these conventions by confronting issues such as race, identity and authenticity.
Murray looks beyond race by first interrogating the very notion of what it means to be an ‘African’
(in the ideological sense rather than in a geographical or racial sense), and then what it means to be
both white and South African. The concept of a multiple identity is a dominant theme in his work,
perhaps beginning with the exhibition White Boy Sings the Blues (1996, Rembrandt van Rijn
Gallery, Johannesburg). This dialogue around identity is first raised with the photograph on the
exhibition invitation card. In it, Murray (age six) is covered in black pigment and dressed to
emulate a Zulu Warrier6. Although in its original context it was an act of youthful naivety, the
clarity that comes from hindsight reveals a deeper existential crisis for South Africans. At the age
of six, it would not have been Murray’s own initiative to dress in such a way – he explained in an
interview that he he was taking part in a school play that required the presence of Zulu Warriers,
and due to the restrictive societal conventions of the time there were no actual black children to
fulfil this role (Interview with the artist, September 2012). In this sense, the act of painting would
have been done to him by his parents or another authority figure. One could argue that, in this way,
he was being constructed and initiated into his parents’ social universe of meaning. Considered on
its own, the image violates post colonial codes of representation which would rightly argue that it
perpetuates reductive stereotypes of the ‘Other’. The artwork here, however, lies in his choice to
publicly expose this private moment in his personal history. By playing with the boundaries of
acceptable representation and racial categorisation, he highlights the absurdity of placing such
emphasis on arbitrary physical attributes – something to which he will return in just over a decade
when he makes this gesture his own.
In the exhibition itself, several Westernised commercial icons (such as America’s Colonel Sanders,
Pink Panther, Richie Rich and the South African phenomenon that is the Oros Man7) make guest
appearances in a series called Black Like Me. In this work Murray constructs flattened, simplified
black and white replicas of these characters out of wood and plastic, embellishing them with a halo
of evenly spaced coins. The signature features of the characters are intact allowing them to remain
instantly recognizable despite a few liberties. Murray then adorns each of the cartoon heads with an
unmistakable ‘Afro’ hair do – commonly associated with a stereotyped black person and also seen in
the wig worn by the young Murray of the invitation card. By merging seemingly contradictory
stereotypes, he re-presents them to the viewer as one amalgamated, meta-stereotype. This apparent
contradiction is also visible in the title, which is shared with two opposing items: a South African
hair product used to straighten curly hair in accordance with Western values of physical beauty, and
a book of the same title written by journalist John Howard Griffin, who narrates his journey through
the racially segregated American South of the 60s disguised as a black man. In this way, the work
successfully oscillates between the local and the international. By juxtaposing popular imagery
with cultural signifiers and simplified methods of representation, Murray alludes to the stereotyping
and fetishization of identity.
From an optimistic point of view, the works celebrate a multiple cultural identity which takes its cue
from the embryonic Rainbow Nation. A cynic, however, might take a different position. The ideals
of the Rainbow Nation may have encouraged diversity, but they also inspired an intentional and
calculated social movement for the African continent to enter a process of reclamation – a process
later realised in South Africa by Thabo Mbheki’s campaign for an African Renaissance.
Consequently many cultural practices and signifiers deemed too European or too Western, were
seen as contributing to ideologies associated with whiteness, and therefore with apartheid. From
this perspective, Murray’s work addresses the agitated compulsion to paint society with an African
brush, giving colour to things previously whitewashed by a history of European domination.
Although it offers playful parodies on the one hand, on the other, Black Like Me contains a coded
ambiguity that simultaneously questions and counters any attempt at interpretation.
Displayed alongside these satirical interpretations of popular culture were more cerebral works such
as Land (1996). In this work, a simplified profile of a face is cut out of wood, and the negative
space inside the face forms another, smaller profile. While the outer profile bears the features
commonly associated with that of a white person, the inside profile exhibits features that are
commonly associated with that of a black person. At the centre of both heads is a jar of earth. The
simplification of human features into generally accepted stereotypes invites the viewer to
automatically assume race. Those viewers who make this assumptive leap, particularly those who
might take pride in not buying into generalisations, catch themselves in an uncomfortable moment
where they have allowed certain mainstream stereotypes or prejudices to surface. Whether Murray
attributes this to the accessibility of media imagery, or presents it as proof that ideologies of
whiteness continue to function at an unconscious, invisible level in South Africa remains unclear.
Considering the Western monopoly on media broadcasting, it would not be unreasonable to say that
either reading demonstrates the embedded nature of historical whiteness. Here Murray takes
accepted representations and re-packages them in such a way that they present an uncomfortable
inner battle for the viewer. Murray’s choice to pose this particular conundrum might be seen to
demonstrate his commitment to destabilising any power that may be lingering unnoticed – an
attempt to force viewers to examine the extent to which their own minds and thoughts have been
shaped by previous processes of disempowerment.
The introduction of earth evokes ideas of ownership, access and control – all of which have been
responsible, sometimes jointly and sometimes separately, for the majority of bloodshed in African
and South African histories and continue as a major theme of conflict in the contemporary South
African dialogue8. In Griffiths and Prozesky’s theorising of the South African sense of dwelling9,
land also alludes to a sense of belonging that was destabilised by the political change and is now
often left fractured for many white South Africans. If one contemplates these understandings of
land as juxtaposed within two simplified racial profiles, then this work also points to the
construction of a social imaginary – a manufacturing of a socially acceptable identity. The layering
of profiles points to the ability of identity debates to be both internal and external. What we now
see beginning to emerge in Murray’s work is a nuanced ambiguity that allows it to function
simultaneously on many conflicting levels.
Murray deploys similar themes over a decade later in the exhibition Crocodile Tears (2007, The
Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town), also exhibited as Crocodile Tears II (2009 Goodman Gallery,
Johannesburg) with minor changes. In it, caricatures of French aristocrats with their faces
‘blackened‘10 appear around the gallery walls among satirical coats of arms, copulating French
poodles and altered reproductions of paintings well known to every Art History student exposed to
the Eurocentric narrative of art, such as Fragonard’s The Swing (1767), while cut-out metal phrases
make endless puns on famous proclamations. Most striking in the context of this discussion is
Murray’s return to themes of a racial fluidity where one identity masquerades as another, as
Renaissance Man (2008) and The Renaissance Man Tending his Land (2008) sit regally on the
walls. In light of the discussion of the Africanising of self and of others, these two pieces together
seem to embody all angles of this debate. In Renaissance Man Murray uses make-up to darken the
skin on his face, neck and shoulders, while leaving his chest and arms uncovered in contrast. His
wig follows the the style of eighteenth century French aristocracy, where it would have signified a
high social standing, which now replaces the ‘Afro’ style. The frame extends beyond Murray’s
shoulders to reveal a bear, unpainted chest. In The Renaissance Man Tending his Land (2008),
Murray is featured in the same wig and face paint, only he is standing in the middle of his garden,
shirtless in shorts and scruffy shoes, poised to ‘tend’ his patch of lawn with a weed-whacker. The
appearance of the term ‘Renaissance’ here sets the stage for a parody of Thabo Mbheki’s presidency,
as can be seen in His Legacy (which parodies Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1968) and
references Mbheki’s penchant for his pipe) and the recurring use of the phrase “I am an African”
(which is borrowed from the title of a speech given by Thabo Mbheki at a ceremony celebrating the
passing of the New Constitution in 1998). Murray satirises the concept of the African Renaissance
by setting it alongside the European Renaissance, which was in fact a product of an elite European
aristocracy, finally destroyed by the French Revolution in 1789. By doing so, he insinuates that
there is a similarly elitist aspect to Mbeki’s Renaissance.
The practice of white people painting their face black has a very particular history, dating back to
the theatrical tradition of blackface in the American minstrel shows (a kind of every-man’s opera)
beginning in the early 1800s, where white performers used black make-up to indicate the
caricatured stereotype of a black person11. When a group of travelling minstrels visited the Cape
Colony in 1848, this tradition was absorbed into the local Emancipation Day celebrations which
were the beginning of what today is called the Kaapse Klopse or the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival12.
Baxter (2001) identifies a number of problematic themes that contribute to the ideology of the
Kaapse Klopse, such as differentiated gender roles and class distinction, which there is neither time
nor space to do justice here. Many people, in fact, stand in strong opposition to the carnival,
“believing it to epitomise and reinforce a negative and ridiculous stereotype of coloured identity”
(Baxter 2001: 89), thus perpetuating and substantiating the apartheid ideologues of race
construction. But the carnival has also been a platform for resistance. Although the songs sung at
these events, ghoemmalidjies, were often frivolous and celebratory, Vivian Bickford Smith (2009)
points out that these songs also have a history of opposition, and sometimes contained coded
satirising of the colonial ruling elite13, such as this parody of Rule Britannia:
Kom Brittanje, jy beskaaf,
Maak die nasies tot jou slaaf…
Jou dwinglandy sal gou verneer
Die wat hulle land eige noem.14
Come Britannia, the civilizing one,
Make the nations into slaves …
Your tyranny will soon humble
Those that call this land their own.
This stands as a striking example of the wilful appropriation of Western stereotypes in order to
protest them from within. The blackface tradition in the Kaapse Klopse has become muted over the
years, and today the painted faces usually consist of bright coloured designs (with very little to no
appearance of black) which match the gaudy, elaborate silk costumes – that is, if the participants
even choose to paint their faces at all.
South Africa’s history with the tradition of blackface is therefore convoluted and contradictory,
standing on the one hand for racist stereotyping, and on the other for an alternative narrative of
change and cultural pride. The face-painting of the carnival may have originated as a crude
manifestation of colonial stereotypes, but continues as a celebration of the ability of South African
culture to be at once singular and multiple. Murray’s contemporary application in Renaissance Man
therefore references this aptitude for pluralism, as does his Africanising of Western stereotypes.
The fact that the artist’s race is revealed as white by his choice to extend the frame of the
photograph beyond the borders of the make-up potentially makes this work uncomfortable to
contemplate, particularly in a South African context. Is Murray suggesting that black people are
actually white underneath, or that enterprising white South Africans are trying to align themselves
with the black majority in order to generate a sense of powerful victimhood?15 Or is this a critique
of the affirmative action policies that foster the habit of organisations to appear inclusive? The
Renaissance Man Tending his Land is equally illusive, only this time Murray relates possible
questions to the historically problematic relationship with the land already discussed. When
combined with themes of role-play and make-believe, of fluid or concealed identities, the ambiguity
that affords these works their strength is deepened.
Reception of Murray’s work has been mixed, though most critics feel compelled to address this
unresolved dialogue between subject positions. In a review of White Boy Sings the Blues, Geers
(1996) insists that attempts by white South African artists such as Murray to Africanise white and/or
Western subjects (where the subject is quite often the artist him/herself) “communicates a latent
desire [of] so many white artists to be black themselves, a desire born out of white guilt” (Geers
1996). I argue that while interrogating ideas associated with authenticity, Murray’s work functions
quite differently. The very idea that culture has the ability to be plural stands in direct opposition to
the purist ideology of whiteness. The meanings that his work evokes are often amplified by the
potential for the viewer to experience a sense of discomfort, particularly in a South African context.
At its best, his work functions beyond this specificity as well by quoting the ongoing and historical
discourses of cultural traffic through ideological desire, as was particularly evident in Black Like
O’Toole (2009) says that Murray’s brand of creative production “includes a restless conversation
with the self”. The use of his own body as subject is what allows him to explore his own
relationship to the invisibly visible forces of whiteness, while simultaneously offering a critique of
these forces. His attempt to expose the wilful abuse of power therefore simultaneously exposes his
own frustration that the idealism of the Rainbow Nation has not yet been realised. In this way
Murray does more than simply “explore the exchange of one evil for another as political power
shifts from the oppressor to the oppressed” as noted by Shaman (2009) – he fights for the right to
freedom of expression and refuses the international pressure to fulfil stereotypes, or the local
pressure to glamorise the new leadership and demonise his whiteness. In this way, his work can be
as difficult to digest for white South Africans as it is for black South Africans. It implicates all
parties instead of playing into what Azimi would call the “Radical Chic”. Again, it is this all
encompassing ambiguity that allows the work to resonate through and beyond the politics of
A narrow interpretation sees Murray’s work as a thinly veiled, self-indulgent display of poor-me-ism
(a term coined by Dyer in 1997) that betrays an inculcated belief in white entitlement. Indeed
Enwezor’s reading of art by white South Africans would suggest that by expressing dissatisfaction
with the new order, he lobbies for a resurgence of white authority by claiming the powerful position
of victim.16 Given his involvement with the protest art movement of the resistance, however, it
seems more likely that his artistic investment in political issues springs from a determination to
continue the struggle for freedom and ensure that so much loss of life was not for nothing.17 He
intimates through his art that it is not your birth place or your skin colour, but rather your behaviour,
your display of ubuntu, that makes you an African.18 When asked to define his sense of what might
make an African African, Murray remarked:I suppose I’m quite contrary. If someone tells me I’m an African
I’ll say I’m not. If some tells me I’m not an African, I’ll say I am. Maybe I’m just contrary, maybe it’s
because I don’t know. I know that I’m from this place – I certainly don’t feel comfortable anywhere else.
(Interview with the artist, September 2012)
Lisa van der Watt has said that part of the problem with being white in post-1994 South Africa is
trying to resolve the witnessing of trauma on the one hand, and being intimately complicit to that
trauma on the other hand, even if only by doing nothing. Murray’s exploration of a fractured South
African identity is as much a symptom of his context as of his past. There is an implied guilt within
particular discourses in South Africa, and whiteness often becomes ‘the elephant in the room’, which
points to the ability of race (and specifically whiteness) to be both present and not present, known
but not discussed while nevertheless affecting the positioning of everything else in that ‘room’.
Murray (in a specific vernacular that one has come to expect) uses irony to cut through such
expectations. In this way, his manner of exposing his whiteness first subverts the South African
societal convention of speaking around a subject to the point that the conversation risks being lost in
politically correct translation. However, in some cases the viewer is alienated by the initial impact
of the work, and the message is obscured. This was the case in one of Murray’s recent exhibitions in
which one work overshadowed all the rest.
Hail to the Thief II opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on the 10th of May 201219. As a
whole, the exhibition was a potent critique of the ANC (South Africa’s Ruling Party), providing a
parody of some of the serious issues that face the new democracy such as corruption and
entitlement. For example, the title itself is a pun on ‘hail to the chief’, which simultaneously
references the current South African president, Jacob Zuma’s well known claim to being a
traditional chieftain and the many legal allegations of fraud that have been made against him.
Although this exhibition was riddled with highly charged subject matter, what caught the media’s
eye was one particular work: The Spear (2011). This painting depicted a man recognizable as Jacob
Zuma, while the heroic style and pose in which he is painted quotes a famous propaganda poster of
the Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. In Murray’s version, however, Zuma is depicted with his
zipper open and his genitals on display. As those familiar with South African history and politics
will know, the title alludes to Mkhonto we Sizwe which translates into English as ‘spear of the
nation’ and refers to the armed wing of the ANC that battled inequality at a highly organised
military level20. The exposure of Zuma’s manhood references the presidents reputation for
infidelity, as well as the rape charges brought against him in 2005 for which he was tried and found
not guilty. The colour pallet (black, red and yellow) mirrors that of the South African Communist
Party21, again emphasised by Murray’s use of the Lenin-esque pose.
The ANC began legal proceedings against the artist, claiming that the painting and its connotations
were an infringement of Zuma’s human rights, which exceeded Murray’s right to freedom of
expression. Social tensions ran high with several public threats reported in the news, such as that of
Enoch Mthembu, spokesperson of the Shembe church, who called to have Murray stoned to death.22
The painting was defaced by two separate parties (Barend la Grange and Lowie Mabokela) on the
22nd of May, less than two weeks after the exhibition opened. Both men were contained by Gallery
security (though Mabokela believed his treatment to be more severe than that of la Grange and
subsequently began legal proceedings of his own) and charged with malicious damages to property.
They were released with suspended sentences – a comparative walk in the park when considering
the two year sentence that awaited Wlodzimierz Umaniec after he defaced a Mark Rothko painting
at the Tate Modern, London in October last year.
The chronicles of The Spear received extensive press coverage, but the reportage seemed to focus
on the sensational soap-boxing, rather than the very real repercussions of the frenzied anti-Murray
campaigns. Although death threats were mentioned, the fact that Murray had to move his family to
a safe location in order to protect them against the protesters lingering in the streets outside his
studio, 150m from his home, was not reported. The ANC finally dropped their defamation case
when the painting was removed from the gallery show room following its defacing.23
The notoriety that followed the exhibition prompted the (black) artist Ayanda Mabulu to unveil his
own painting of Zuma, which sees the president dressed in full traditional Zulu attire, performing a
high kick characteristic of Zulu cultural dancing, and therefore also exposing his genitals. The title,
Umshini Wam, refers to the popular struggle song of Mkhonto we Sizwe which called members to
arms. Zuma was head of Mkhonto Wesizwe’s Secret Police and very senior in the armed struggle.
The song has become integral to Zuma’s public image, and is regularly sung on stage by Zuma and
his contemporaries to great applause at ANC rallies. Mabulu had previously depicted the South
African President’s penis in the painting Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi (2010) which
translates into English as ‘better a fool than a rich man’s nonsense’. Is it the fact that Mabulu is black
that allowed these paintings to fly under the radar, being reported only in relation to The Spear? In
an article for the Daily Maverick, Rebecca Davis quotes the journalist Unathi Kondile, who argues
that it is the artists’ race that led to the painting’s different receptions, but not for the reasons one
might think: the reason Ayanda Mabulu’s artwork didn’t cause ripples is because as far as art is concerned
a black artist is intellectually incapable of producing a complex work – blacks (sic) are
incapable of satire – until they are verified by their white counterparts.…It is only when the
African story is told through the white lens that newspapers and the general public will pay
attention. (quoted in Davis 2012: dailymaverick.co.za)
Although reductive, this comment shows how deeply the unequal power relations of the past
continue to be felt. The painting and the events it triggered caused many heated public
conversations. Among the themes was the usual suspect of racism, but given the recent attempt by
the ruling party to pass a bill that would have severely compromised the freedom of the press, the
right to freedom of expression was particularly topical.24 It is also interesting that two unorchestrated
defacings occurred on the same day, at the same time, by two people at fairly opposite
ends of the societal spectrum - La Grange middle-aged, white and Afrikaans, and Mabokela a
young, black member of the ANC Youth League. Perhaps the triumph of the work lay in its ability
to offend without prejudice across racial divides.
With so much outrage and debate focussed on The Spear, most of the other artworks in the
exhibition were largely ignored. Take for example Murrays’s appropriation (or what critic O’Toole
would call misappropriation) of iconic protest posters. In one such work called The Struggle, he
distorts the famous dying words of Solomon Mahlangu (“Tell my people that I love them and that
they must continue the struggle), such that they now read “Tell my people that I love them and that
they must continue to struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and kick backs”.25 Murray describes his
research at the Mayibuye Archive (where the original posters that he parodies are housed) before
making the artwork, and how meditating on these posters in light of the current socio-political
climate was morally disquieting. This might at first appear somewhat facile, but by revisiting such
posters ironically, Murray attempts to draw attention to what the struggle rhetoric is being used to
justify today. In this sense, he remobilises the posters for their original purpose, to oppose the abuse
of power. In his own words - “I am not shitting on the graves of the heroes”, but he feels that it is
important for people to understand that “their graves are being shat on” (interview with the artist,
Ironically, Murray’s Crocodile Tears was arguably more contentious than Hail to the Thief as it
pointed not only to apartheid, but right back to colonial rule as well, equating such ideologies with
the current government and addressing such issues as identity and authenticity in this frame. The
reaction, however, was not nearly as extreme. When considering this incongruity along with the
focus on The Spear in particular, it is not outrageous to assume that the indignation has more to do
with Murray’s decision to make Zuma identifiable in the work. As we have seen, this was by no
means the first time Murray had provided a scathingly critical comment on the post-apartheid
presidency, but it is the first time that he attacked the president as a person instead of simply in his
role of nation-head.
O’Toole’s use of the word misappropriation to describe Murray’s use of commercial (and political)
lexicons, rather than reappropriation or even simply appropriation, is apt. In his own words, he
“thieves around from all over” (interview with the artist, September 2012), finding symbols and reanimating
them. In doing so, he gives them the ability to simultaneously mean something other,
sometimes the opposite, of what they have come to represent. As we have seen, however, it is
Murray’s unapologetic use of African cultural lexicons that is most often problematised on the
grounds that he is white. In doing so, Murray claims the power of the appropriated symbols and
asserts himself as very much engaged with and part of a contemporary African and South African
socio-political culture and discourse.
The use of African iconography by white artists will always be, to some extent, a form of
appropriation, but Murray demonstrates that the possible power of the work lies in the reanimation
of these symbols. He accesses particular sets of symbols, often appropriating them to portray his
contribution to the developing national narrative, and in doing so has generated his own language,
or as Mary Corrigall puts it in her review of Crocodile Tears, an “iconography of his own
making”(Corrigall 2009). Perhaps, tough, this is a symptom of being an engaged member of
contemporary South African society, rather than a particular artistic intentionality. What emerges
now is a crude framework for analysing Murray’s oeuvre – he appropriates and then reanimates
existing symbols, and in doing so generates a visual dialect of his own.
Corrigall’s review goes on to call Murray’s work “unambiguous, confrontational and vitriolic”
(Corrigall 2009). His work could be considered vitriolic in that it sometimes clearly stems from a
place of anger, and it is most definitely confrontational, but it should by now be evident that at its
best, the real potency of Murray’s work lies in its unexpected ambiguity. Perhaps this is where The
Spear falls short. Although it contains many references that extend beyond the gallery, it does not
offer the same potential for conflicting interpretation that was evident in works such as Black Like
Me and Renaissance Man. Murray himself has no qualms in admitting that he would not have
chosen it as the work on which to hang his reputation. His piece at last year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair
brings this discussion to an appropriate finale. Titled Dissent, the piece consists of the word
‘silence’, all in block capitals sitting heavily on the wall . The very word ‘silence’ is itself a
contradiction as to speak it is to do the opposite. The question is whether it should be interpreted as
a verb (to describe what the ANC tried to do to him), a noun (to describe his position on the subject)
or as a command. Murray offered very little public voice during the contentious period and
perhaps, considering the title, this piece stands as his first and last word on the matter – a silent
protest if you will. He seems to insist that the old cliché is right, and silence does speak louder than
Given the current socio-political climate in South Africa, and the country’s not so distant past, it is
not surprising that a work of art can cause such unrest. The provocative manner in which Murray
chooses to confront governmental abuse of power is on occasion mistaken for patriarchal
didacticism. If we return once more to Griffeths and Prozesky’s claim that a sense of dwelling is
crucial to the construction of a social imaginary, then Murray addresses notions of authenticity in
order to gain access to the place in which he wishes to dwell.
An important aspect of Murray’s work is his ability to frustrate expectations, notably in his refusal
to offer the authorising gesture of white guilt. His particular method of exposure owes much of its
success to his ability to turn the gaze back on himself and question of his sense of selfhood; that is,
he interrogates the mechanisms which allow him to feel a sense of identity, such as his (and
everyone else’s) ‘Africanness’, and the racial identification that is a product of societal
performativity. What allows Murray to escape categorisation as a polemicist is his ability to offer
not just a white perspective, but a critique of that perspective. He attempts to unite South Africans
through a shared uncertainty and an acknowledgement of the cultural ambiguity that underpins
South African society. He visually articulates the shared frustration felt by most South Africans on
the realisation that the international stereotypes that we have been working so hard to escape are not
just external – they retain some level of internalisation regardless of the sincerity of the struggle to
be free. Exposing this internal duality allows Murray a humanity that might otherwise be difficult
to see amongst the satire.
To end, I leave you with an appropriately succinct but ironical comment of Murray’s:
“I remain committed to the freedom of expression, absolutely”.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Azimi, Negar. 2011. ‘Good intentions’. Frieze Magazine, 137: March. Accessed at
http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/good-intentions on 25/06/2011.
Baxter, Lisa. 2001. “Continuity and Change in Cape Town’s Coon Carnival: The 1960s and 1970s”. African
Studies, 60:1, 87-105
Bickford-Smith, Vivian. 1995. “Black Ethnicities, Communities and Political Expression in Late Victorian
Cape Town”. The Journal of African History, 36, pp 443-465
Coombes, Annie E. 2003. History after apartheid: visual culture and public memory in a democratic South
Africa. London: Duke University Press.
Corrigall, Mary. 2009. “Brett Murray’s Crocodile Tears at The Goodman Gallery”.
http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/mary-corrigalls-crocodile-tears-review/, December 2012
Davis, Rebecca. “From The Spear to Umshini Wam, a trip less ordinary”. Daily Maverick.
Durrheim, Kevin, Mtose Xoliswa and Brown, Lindsay. 2011. Race Trouble: Race, Identity and Inequality in
Post-Apartheid South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu Natal Press.
Dyer, Richard. 1997. White. London: Routledge.
Enwezor, Okwui. 1997. ‘Reframing the black subject: ideology and fantasy in contemporary South African
representation’. Third Text, 11:40, 21-40.
Frankenburg, Ruth. 1993. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minnesota:
University of Minnesota Press.
Garner, Steve. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Geers, Kendell. 1996. ‘Singing the Post-Apartheid Blues’. The Star, Friday August 1996. Accessed at
Griffiths, Dominic and Prozesky, Maris L. C.. 2010. ‘The politics of dwelling: being white/ being South
African’. Africa Today, Vol.56, No. 4 (Summer), 22-41.
Hecker, Judith B. 2011. Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now: Prints from the Museum of Modern
Art. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.
Marschall, Sabine. 2001. “Strategies of Accomodation: Towards an Inclusive Canon of South African Art”.
Art Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring), 50-59.
O’Toole, Sean. 2009. ‘Distinguishing the bull from the bullshit’. Pages 4-17 in Crocodile Tears, exhibition
catalogue. Goodman Gallery: In-house publishing.
Shaman, Sanford s. 2008. ‘Review: Crocodile Tears’. Art South Africa. http://www.artsouthafrica.com/?
article=617, December 2012.
Peffer, John. 2009. Art and the end of apartheid. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Snyman, Gerrie. 2008. “African Hermeneutics’ ‘Outing’ of Whiteness”. Neotestimentica, 42.1, 97-122.
van der Watt, Liese. 2008. “Making Whiteness Strange”. Third Text, 15:56, 63-74.
1 As it is theorised by authors such as Frankenburg (1993), Dyer (1997) and Garner (2007), whiteness is generally
considered to have three prominent tropes – normativity, invisibility and the social nature of its construction. In
White Women, Race Matters, Ruth Frankenberg (1993) defines whiteness as an expressive power that has the ability
to shape the lives of white people: “First whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it
is a ‘standpoint’, a place from which white people look at [themselves], at others and at society. Thirdly, ‘whiteness’
refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.” (Frankenberg 1993: 1).
2 See Snyman (2008).
3 See Enwezor’s seminal and much debated text ‘Reframing the black subject: ideology and fantasy in contemporary
South African representation’ (1997).
4 Until the late 1970s when the Soweto Riots forced a higher level of public awareness, Western and Eurocentric
canons had been the most prevalent devices against which African and South African art was judged. The
postmodernist tendency to question “hierarchically ordered binaries” and its “critique of dominant Western culture”
(Marschall 2001: 52) then led to the questioning of the art/craft divide in the late 1980s. Although boundaries were
being constantly questioned, it was also during this time that new canons were in formation. Peffer (2009) explains
how it was the media coverage and photojournalism of the struggle years that first began to construct the visually
stereotyped image of black resistance in South Africa. Photographers used extreme zooms to highlight and capture
the most violent and therefore the most dramatic moments for the purpose of maximising effect , thus the archetypal
image of the struggling, pained, tortured black subject resisting white domination entered the international
consciousness through the world press. This was amplified by the fact that the cultural boycott (which began in the
1960s and ended in 1991) had effectively starved the market for almost three decades, making such photographs the
only imagery available for international consumption.
5 It is important here to note that although the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution provides for it,
freedom of expression can only really function where there is a broad societal acceptance of its values.
6 Note that he is not just rendered ‘black’ but is dressed as an nkosane (a “little chief”) with a beshu, which is
a sign of adulthood. Consciously or unconsciously he is being constructed as an adult. In his later work, such as
Renaissance Man (2008) which will be addressed in the discussion to come, he begins to recognise the significance
of this moment and adopts it as a major theme.
7 The Oros Man is the cartoon face of Oros, an orange squash made and sold in South Africa. His appearance
resembles a bright orange Michelin Man.
8 Take, for example, the land claims that have been instituted in an attempt to redress the European appropriation
of tribal land, and the large scale apartheid removals. Such policies are continually contested and adapted. This
debate and its continued destabilizing effect is highlighted by the recent governmental decision of the Mongaung
conference in 2012 to revoke the ‘willing-buyer-willing-seller’ principle for land distribution and to invoke
compulsory purchase at the government’s determined price.
9 Griffiths and Prozesky (2010) claim that white South Africans now feel that they must choose between being white
and being South African. They use the philosophical language of Taylor and Heidegger to account for this, arguing
that “a social imaginary informs the way in which one dwells”(Griffiths and Prozesky 2010: 31), and that during
apartheid, an artificial sense of dwelling was built on a flawed social imaginary that privileged white people and
bore no reflection to the reality of South African society. The fracturing of a social imaginary so ingrained is held
by Griffiths and Prozesky as the foremost cause of emigration, even if the official details are documented as crime,
affirmative action, or other surface concerns.
10 In Sanford Shaman’s review, he notes that Murray’s figures have been “transformed from white European
colonials into black African colonials” (Shaman 2009).
11 This popular nineteenth century tradition spread to other parts of the globe, and is largely responsible for the
propagation of stereotyped representations of black people found in other forms of popular culture, such as cartoons,
comics and advertising campaigns. Although in the USA, blackface was brought to an end by the Civil Rights
Movement of the 1960’s, it is recorded as late as 1978 in the popular British television series The Black and White
12 Kaapse Klopse is literally translated as “Cape knockers” or “Cape hitters”, but more accurately as the Cape
Minstrels. I have deliberately chosen to exclude the cruder term ‘Coon Carnival’ used by Baxter because of it’s
derogatory nature. The celebrations span the first two days of the calender year and consist of “a street procession
through Cape Town’s city centre”. The procession is made up of groups or troupes who wear matching costumes.
The festivities culminate with competitions at various different venues where the troupes perform dance routines,
sing and play instruments, and trophies are awarded for a number of different categories(Baxter 2001: 87).
13 This is an apt example of the postcolonial concept of mimicry, where ambivalence leads to a longing for and often
an adoption of the culture of the coloniser by the colonised – mostly because such cultural signifiers come to stand
14 Both this extract and the translation are quoted in Bickford-Smith 2009: 448-449.
15 Richard Dyer (1997) identifies this as one of the dangers of speaking about whiteness in that it might be used as a
platform to claim the power of the oppressed, of the minority, as a ‘new victim group’ who are the target of ‘unjust’
affirmative action policies.
16 Again, see Enwezor (1997).
17 Murray was actively engaged in the protest art movement of the resistance, first with The Loosely Affiliated Group
which later became the Gardens Media Project. This improvised group worked together to produce posters, T-shirts
stickers and graffiti, and organised protests as a means of conscientising people and drawing them into the
conversation of resistance. According to Hecker 2011, the guiding principle of the group were “to work for a
democratic South Africa, to oppose racism and sexism, to unite visual artists and establish cooperative ways of
working, and to form links with progressive organizations and put resources at their service.” (Hecker 2011:
18 Ubuntu is the Zulu philosophy of humanity epitomised by the African proverb “umuntu ngumunte ngabantu”, or
“a human-being becomes a human-being through other human-beings”.
19 As with Crocodile Tears the exhibition had already opened at the Goodman Gallery’s Cape Town branch in 2011,
though this first version did not include The Spear.
20 The group was categorised as a terrorist organisation by the then South African government and banned in 1961.
21 SACP is a member of the Tripartheid Alliance, together with the ANC and COSATU (Congress of South African
22 “This [public threat], persistent and very threatening e-mails, and a call from Jonathan Shapiro (a friend who has
also been on the receiving end of death threats) who said he has never seen anything like what was happening
regarding the Spear and was worried for my safety [because of] the unbelievable silence from the state, the police
and the powers that be…in fact the tacit support [implied by this silence] gave the perpetrators [a] kind of fatwa
against me, my assistant, the gallery owner and their staff and the editor of The City Press and her staff, [and]
necessitated that I take my family to a place of safety.” (email correspondence with the artist, March 2013)
23 This is most likely because they would have lost in the constitutional court.
24 The legislation has not been abandoned by the ANC, though it has been continually watered down because
COSATU, for the moment, is opposed to it.
25 Solomon Mahlangu was the first member of Umkhonto we Sizwe to be tried and hanged by the apartheid
government in June 1977.