“Touching a Nerve: Identity, Caricature and Confrontation in the work of Brett Murray”
By Kira Kemper
Post-apartheid South Africa prides itself on the freedom that the arts enjoy within a democracy that supposedly provides fertile ground for such freedom. However, where there is power there is manipulation and control and an attempt to curtail freedom of expression in the arts when it outrages or criticises the state. South Africa is no exception. Harrisson expresses herself succinctly on this point in the following quote:
The international, although by no means universal, appeal of art is mirrored by its ability to provoke controversy the world over. Significantly, the catalysts for outrage and censorship seem by and large to be the same; countries that take pride in their liberality and support for freedom of expression react in ways remarkably similar to those they perceive to be repressive. (Harrisson, S. 12-09-10: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/art/overview.php)
In recent years there have been disturbingly frequent cases where the South African government has over-stepped boundaries in order to attempt to suppress art and freedom of expression. This applies not just to the arts, but also to the media; journalists from newspapers and news channels have been threatened too with the recent discussions surrounding the implementation of a media tribunal which would restrict journalists’ media coverage . Such drastic measures threaten to silence critical voices in the art world and elsewhere and compel me to examine the work of a South African artist who addresses thorny issues that directly confront and caricature such forms of hypocrisy in his mixed-media artworks. Brett Murray is an artist who has managed to maintain a certain level of sharp and relevant critique of current events without provoking censorship from the government.
The aim of this research paper will be to examine Brett Murray’s work in terms of its controversial nature, its ability to provoke critical responses, and to consider the importance of such an artist in the current atmosphere of control over freedom of expression. In doing this I also wish to explore how Murray problematizes the issue of his own identity. He does this by both confronting his audience through a debunking form of caricature, while at the same time confronting his own persona and experience and inserting these into his work. As Ivor Powell points out: “What is particularly noteworthy in Brett Murray’s work […] is that the artistically crucial question of identity – the creative and self-definitive position in consciousness out of which the artist operates and from which the work derives its significance and effect – remains far more a problem than a given” (2002: 6). Murray’s self interrogation and self portrait seen through his use of caricature and the use of his own image, manages to interrogate his position in the world and his identity as a white, privileged male living in South Africa today. As Powell further points out, Murray suggests a caricatured self-portrait that runs through his work as a kind of leitmotif and “takes us emblematically into a world made as it were in the image of the artist. It takes is into a realm of discourse where experience is questioned in terms of its conditioning and partialities, and where the underpinnings of the discourse are integral to the force and the significance of the work” (Powell, I. 2002: 7).
Murray grapples with his place in the world as a kind of “white middle class cultural hybrid”, being a white male who was formally “unfairly advantaged” and who carries “anxiety, guilt and opprobrium” because of the shame of apartheid, as Ivor Powell puts it. (2002: 7-9). As a person and an artist he is greatly influenced and affected by his place in the world and the way in which he exists in the body that he is in. He does not shy away from touchy subjects and he says: “My objective is not to insult, it is to provoke” (Williamson, S. 2009: 174). Murray does not go out of his way to offend the public; his works are carefully thought out and constructed to provoke debates and discussions instead of emotional outcries. Murray can thus be seen to work in a very satirical way or in a “critically entertaining” way, as Sue Williamson has said, getting his audience to think critically through an unflinchingly frank but also humorous approach. (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/sue-williamsons-sasol-wax-award-2009-interview/)
Murray has an impressive record of achievements. He was awarded his Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town in 1989. Between 1991 to 1994 Murray newly established and taught in the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch and curated the show Thirty Sculptors from the Western Cape in 1992. In 1995 he co-curated, with Kevin Brand, the exhibition titled Scurvy, at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. That year Murray also co-curated Junge Kunst Aus Süd- Afrika for the Hänel Gallery in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1997 he organised, with Robert Weinek, the show Smokkel as a fringe event for the second Johannesburg Biennale. In 1999, Murray and seven colleagues, Lisa Brice, Kevin Brand, Bruce Gordon, Andrew Putter, Sue Williamson, Robert Weinek and Lizza Littlewort, co-founded Public Eye which was a non-profit company aimed at initiating and managing public art projects in Cape Town. They initated outdoor sculpture projects which included the Spier Sculpture Biennale and Homeport, which involved 15 artists who created site specific text-based works in Cape Town’s waterfront precinct. They also initiated projects on Robben Island, worked together with the city health officials on aids awareness campaigns and they hosted multi-media events and parties across the city that were funded by cultural bodies. (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/biography/)
Murray often works with images and ideas taken from popular culture and contemporary society. He works predominantly in sculpture but also creates drawings and works in photographic processes and print media. His ability to shift between these various media enables him to articulate his ideas fluidly and according to the medium that would best support his ideas. The many popular characters that he uses, including Bart Simpson, Richy Rich and other cartoon characters or even animals, all form part of a commonly recognised language. Murray comments on this by saying: “If you want to satirically comment about what is happening around you, if you want to make an impact, you have to have a framework, a point of reference which is understandable. These are familiar images, which draw them [the audience] in, you can then pull the rug out from beneath them…” (Murray, B. 2002: 145)
Murray’s first solo show at the Johannesburg Market Gallery in 1989 is a perfect example of Murray as an uncompromising critic. South Africa at this point was in a state of emergency as the end of apartheid was imminent. The show upset a group of right wing extremists as it included a selection of small-sculptures of fat, rotund figures made in fibreglass and resin in a cartoon-like style that Murray has continued to pursue in his work. The sculptures depicted, for example, a white policeman who was quite literally too big for his boots in that his shoes far outsized his body and another work depicted a pig’s head wearing a helmet . (O’ Toole, S: http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/brett-murrays-dark-comedy-sean-o-tooles-essay/)
Powell points out that,
[t]he series rests essentially on a caricaturing technique of psychotic exaggeration, but at the same time, Murray has emblematically taken the subject matter and the socio-historical critique within his own consciousness. And he has done this by locating his figuration against a source caricature- that of the artist himself. (Powell, I. 2002: 7)
By depicting a caricatured, short and stocky male figure, Murray can perhaps even be seen to position himself in relation to the characters that he portrays as he himself is quite short and stocky in stature . This becomes more evident in later works where he identifies, for example, with the anti-hero cartoon character of Bart Simpson in his work. There are many other examples, too, where Murray’s own image is used to express his dissatisfaction with the way things are, notably in his photographic series depicting himself in various guises . Murray’s first show was his step into the world as a satirical sculptor and was a clear marker for things to come. Throughout Murray’s work so far, he has continued to use his own image as a source of his biting critique on the world.
In 1999 Murray exhibited an installation of photographs that documented and exposed his childhood, called The Rivonia Years: Guilt and Innocence . Williamson writes about this work: “Murray showed photographs from his family album, by implication contrasting his own white suburban upbringing with the experience of those incarcerated on the island”. (http://www.artthrob.co.za/00may/reviews.html) This installation is a very clear and concise example of how Murray has analysed his own identity to express his own dissatisfaction with the way things were at the time. The installation included a photograph of Murray as a 6 year old child dressed and made up as a black African child. His body was painted black and he wore a loincloth, a perfect stereotype of the humble savage seen through the warped lenses of apartheid . Powell points out the “fortuitous but inescapable hauntedness of the expression on the young Murray’s face” (2002: 8). This photograph, together with others of his family and poses with the old South African flag, create an idea of how and in what kind of social environment he grew up . Murray explains that he grew up in the apartheid years and comes from a family that is half-English, half-Afrikaans. He talks about how he was born a few months before Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia trialists were imprisoned and states that:
this was and is my comfortable and uncomfortable inheritance. The political and social forces beyond the confines of my family formed a system which protected and infringed on me, empowered and disempowered me, promoted and denied me. When I looked beyond my private experiences of loves and relationships, family and friends and of boy becoming man, the contradictions in this system, which divided my life from others, resulted in a cross-questioning of responsibility and complicity. (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/work/guilt-and-innocence/)
Murray has constantly and courageously confronted that which he disapproves of, in himself.
Satirical artists seem to be grouped together with caricaturists and cartoonists as they jointly set out to meaningfully poke fun at those in power . Murray has referred to his work as satirical and has explained that within satire there are different ranges, from the one-liner to a more layered kind of humour that is more metaphorical. Murray works with all of these ranges of satire, as is clearly evident in his work. Many of Murray’s text pieces could be called one-liners in that they are short, punchy text pieces that resemble a cartoon punch-line or a billboard headline. (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/sue-williamsons-sasol-wax-award-2009-interview/)
Within this mode of art creation, Murray manages to put into words his frustrations or opinions in a way that encourages a response through a very pithy and direct form of address or comic expression. The text piece, Our Religion Must Win (2006) , for example, is a kind of dramatic one-liner that intends to strike the viewer powerfully in its assertively self-righteous voice. Its simplicity and directness is unmistakeable and it is a message that sticks with the viewer because of its touchy subject matter, that of religiously inspired dominance. It simultaneously critiques that which it asserts by providing a space where the viewer realises its irony and the power that religions have over cultures and therefore whole groups of people and countries. The thing that I enjoy most about the piece is that it accuses every religion equally. It is simple and open-ended enough to point at diverse people equally.
The exhibition White Like Me (2002) is a perfect example of Murray’s intention to not side with any one cause, much like he does in his Our Religion Must Win text piece. For the White Like Me exhibition, roughly named after the hair products Black Like Me , Murray uses a cartoon style to pinpoint exact places of sensitivity in social mores and behaviours and pokes them very sharply by incisively capturing moments that illustrate and foreground such fundamental values of a group or society. My favourite of the cartoons, Black Fascism , which are made out of profile-cut perspex and metal, shows three children playing and the text below reads: “We’ve played white fascist, white fascist, now let’s play black fascist, black fascist”. The cartoon evokes an almost ‘laugh out loud’ response and has a relevance to our society today in that it projects the idea that perhaps apartheid and its practice of racial stereotyping could be reversed. The humour is unexpected too, coming from a picture of children playing, i.e. situating the question raised at the level of ‘innocent’ play but simultaneously at the root of social development, namely childhood. In this way it hits the viewer even harder in that it posits the question of the effects of power to each race equally. He may be saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” .
Another piece that, for me, sums up the conceptual thinking of the exhibition very succinctly is a piece called Us and Them . It consists of two identical illustrations of aliens that are framed and hung next to each other on a wall. Both are depicted as white silhouettes against a black background. They are cartoon-like figures with large noses and a weirdly long antenna protruding from the tops of their heads - it is an image of an alien as popular culture has created. Whilst the images of the aliens are truly identical, the one is labelled Us and the other Them. Although much of the show consisted of one-liners, this piece managed to drive Murray’s point home in its simplicity and directness. In their identical guise he wittily underscores the point that our perception of aliens and the ‘other’ is usually something that is not different from our own image, as during the apartheid years when black people were ‘othered’ because of the colour of their skin and other cultural differences that distinguish them from the ‘norm’ or ‘ideal’, i.e. white people. This piece thus forces me as a viewer to think of the context of apartheid, but also more broadly and generally of attitudes amongst different people in the whole world, and even beyond. As Virginia McKenny puts it: “Instead of skirting the issues, Murray engages them with characteristic wit and humour- calling a spade a bloody shovel and treating us all as equal aliens.”(2002: 145)
The critic Hazel Friedman once remarked: “The raw power of Murray’s work lies in its ability to strike the viewer in that place where a laugh and a gasp are indistinguishable” (O’Toole, S: http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/brett-murrays-dark-comedy-sean-o-tooles-essay/). Friedman could not have put it more accurately in pointing out the merging of humour and pointed critique in his work. Murray’s ability to combine these two emotions is what makes his art edgy. As Colin Richards has put it:
Hurt is serious. Humour, a slightly bland word, but no other serves, is not usually spoken in the same breath as hurt. To seek humour in historical hurt – whether it be the violence of poverty, or the insults and injuries of war and genocide – is profoundly risky. To do so is to give humour a hurtful edge, and make it a provocation. (http://artsouthafrica.com/?news=45.)
Murray combines humour and hurt to create a sweet and sour combination where the result becomes exactly such a form of provocation.
Murray’s work is also strikingly simple in its ‘objectness’ or the way in which it is presented to the viewer. Figures are simplified to cartoon-like forms that take on a generic character and texts are also presented in cartoon-like simplicity. His text pieces are often physically accentuated by way of jutting strongly off the wall or hovering in front of it. This sculptural treatment is obviously very different from a cartoon in a newspaper and it lends a certain physical punch which is different from the ‘throw-away’ newspaper status of a cartoon, giving the work a more serious and legitimizing edge. Much like a billboard demands attention due to its size and clarity and directness of text, Murray’s works plays with similar means to engage the viewer’s attention. Often his very simple sculptures and text pieces ‘develop’ with further or repeated viewing in the sense that the initial message that is brought across in Murray’s work may at first appear to mean one thing but may subsequently take on a deeper and more meaningful edge once such layers of meaning have been identified by the viewer. In this way his works display a sophisticated play with irony and ambiguity.
Essays and discussions about Murray’s work help to engage with the meaning of works that could otherwise be lost or written off as simple one-liners. It is as if Murray intends for the work to be talked about and discussed instead of merely being viewed. Murray has said that he “desires to prick consciousness” (O’Toole, S: http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/brett-murrays-dark-comedy-sean-o-tooles-essay/). Pricking consciousness implies a sharp and almost unpleasant action that provokes the mind to continue thinking about it. As Powell puts it: “Murray himself put it very nicely, talking about seeking through the humour in his work, not so much as to amuse as to hit the funny bone. It’s not funny , it hurts, when you hit the funny bone” (Powell, I. http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/ivor-powells-i-love-africa-catalogue-essay/). The effect of humour, in the way that Murray uses it, allows for many kinds of reactions. To quote Colin Richards again:
Humour is protean. It enjoys intimacy as much as spectacle. It can be acid, gentle, lyrical, bombastic. It can be a barb, a balm, a bomb. It can be monstrous and unfunny. It is always embodied; a smile that bites, a laugh that explodes, a grim grin. (http://artsouthafrica.com/?news=45)
Our Religion Must Win has a pricking reaction in that it simultaneously provokes the viewer on a personal as well as a more broader level in that it speaks so clearly about ‘them’ and ‘us’, their religion which is supposedly ‘wrong’ and our religion which is supposedly ‘right’ according to certain values set in society. At the same time it leaves an ambiguous space open enough to apply to all religious groups. If the text piece was read by a Jew or a Muslim, the same insult would apply- wars are fought where both sides believe that their religion is the right one. The viewer is then forced to think of the reaction of people of other religions and their reaction to this statement and thus confront the hard-headedness of it that it throws back at the viewer. It is thus able to provoke critical self-reflection in the viewer from a very simple and direct starting point. The simplicity and boldness of the statement encourages a reaction not unlike the direct address of a billboard or, for example, a warning on a box of cigarettes. It presents itself as fact or pronouncement but then becomes quite humorous on reflection.
Murray’s desired confrontation is captured in what he once said: “I know I’ve succeeded when my work is offensive to some.” This playful but also somewhat transgressive confrontation is most interesting to me in its somewhat ambiguous pronouncement. It is as though Murray is playing a game with his viewers in that he doesn’t, yet he also does to an extent, want to offend. This tells me that Murray creates work with the intention of provoking a reaction, not merely to have his work appreciated as art, but also to be interacted or engaged with as a form of ‘activism’ or shaking up. The kind of laughter produced by Murray’s work has been describes as “difficult laughter” by art writer Sean O’Toole. (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/brett-murrays-dark-comedy-sean-o-tooles-essay/). This hurtful humour allows the artist certain freedoms from constraints. It allows the truth to be present even when it at first may not be apparent. In this context, Colin Richard points out:
Humour and art share much in common in enabling access to a world of freedom and intuition. Both find absolute values alien. Both ignore all barriers, permit contradictions and constitute an experimental space where human concerns are introduced to us in all their relativities, with one’s own failure always in view. Manifest in this kind of humour is a preparedness to test its own identity and put it on the line, at that moment where humour becomes painful. Then, in the deepest consciousness of humanity, the subversive truth comes knocking. (Richards, C. http://artsouthafrica.com/?news=45)
Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) is definitely the most well know newspaper cartoonists in South Africa. He produces cartoons that are biting and shocking at times, but mostly extremely clever and witty in the way in which they address and caricature current political and social news events. When looking at an example of Shapiro’s work one can tell that little is held back. Character assassination through exaggeration and even nudity takes place in a very funny and cleverly crafted way. Shapiro’s work also aims for a reaction similar to Murray’s, however a lot less tactfully most of the time and with a different intent and approach. In South Africa there have recently been many headlines about art offending powerful people. Unlike Jonathan Shapiro, who specifically creates cartoons for newspapers to critically satirise the government and push the boundaries as far as possible, Murray has managed to avoid scrutiny and scorn from the government. Perhaps this is due to the less public nature of his work or due to the fact that his critique of the government hasn’t been as directly insulting as Shapiro’s. Shapiro as cartoonist, but also other artists like Yiull Damaso, have not been as lucky . This does not, however, mean that Murray’s work has not created a stir.
An example of the controversial and visually effective nature of Murray’s work in rousing public response can be seen in one of his early public sculptures. In 1998 Murray won the Cape Town Urban Art Competition which resulted in the erection of a 3,5meter high bronze sculpture called Africa (2000) . The sculpture is a large-scale bronze recreation of an African traditional wooden figurine, with several bright yellow Bart Simpson heads protruding from it as if to imply a form of intrusion by Western commodification or viral take-over. The replica of an average tourist statuette is smoothly modelled and has a dark, wood- like quality in its bronze patina that is highly contrasted against the harsh, bright yellow of the Bart Simpson heads .
Murray got the inspiration for the piece from a walk he took through the area which features several flea market stalls where people have been selling African curios and adjacent shops sell mass-produced items such as Bart Simpson key rings. He says of his intention that “I wanted to celebrate the cultural marketplace and the weird cultural hybrid which is all of us South Africans” (Murray, B. 2000: 15). Murray continued his exploration of his own identity in this piece too. “What am I? Who am I? I am a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I wanted to celebrate that uneasy relationship and also to make something entertaining and provocative” (Murray, B. 2000: 15) The use of Bart Simpson is a recurring character in his work and perhaps, as I have already pointed out, Murray sees a lot of himself in the bad- boy, outspoken, revolting teenager persona. As Murray has said: “Bart Simpson is a little white male who says things he shouldn’t. He likes to make things provocative and in-your-face, to get people talking.”(2002: 145)
The sculpture caused quite a bit of controversy because of its subject matter and the idea of African culture being depicted as commodified or taken over. Some felt that the sculpture was offensive to West African communities (Williamson, S. http://www.artthrob.co.za/00may/). Protesters had even threatened to be present at the opening to prevent the erection of this sculpture that they thought to be offensive. The Cape Town City Council initially deemed the sculpture culturally sensitive as they thought it might offend those who found the sculpture spiritually significant. Prof. Kole Omotoso, a well know Nigerian academic, wrote an article claiming that the sculpture was not offensive or spiritually significant. On the topic Murray said: “I started making it and was three-quarters of the way when officials said they believed it would insult sensibilities or peoples’ religious beliefs. But these were just excuses.” (Underhill, G; 2000: 15). Murray was even preparing to go to court over the matter to ensure that he could complete the statue and erect it as it was agreed (Underhill, G; 2000: 15). After much deliberation, the Cape Town City Council allowed Murray to continue working on the sculpture and it was then erected without difficulty in St Georges Mall (http://www.artthrob.co.za/99sept/news.html#murray). The public had mixed reactions to the work, two thirds of Cape Argus readers, who responded to a phone-in poll during the week of the sculpture’s erection, hated the sculpture while the other third loved it. (Underhill, G; 2000: 15)
The controversy surrounding the artwork Africa can be largely ascribed to its ambiguous nature. It can be read in many different ways and the public’s readings of the sculpture were quite insightful too. While some thought the work commented on the incursion of a colonising Western culture labelled American, (which could be seen as a fairly ‘obvious’ reading in the intrusion of Bart Simpson heads), others felt it was about a syncretistic African culture, where a positive cross-pollination is taking place (Roper, C. 2000: 20). The multiple readings of the work show how Murray successfully creates works that allow for various layers of meaning to evolve or to be brought to the work. This work certainly gives rise to a number of speculations as to the exact meaning of the sculpture, and as Joyce Ozinsky said in her launch speech: “The mixed message will provoke and stimulate. What it isn’t, is wallpaper. It will never fade into the background”. Ozinsky “went on to laud Cape Town for being the first South African city to adopt an outstanding piece of contemporary art as a public monument. (Williamson, S; https://www.artthrob.co.za/00may/review.html)
More recently, Murray’s work has created even more unexpected controversy, this time from a gallery where it was to be displayed. In 2007 one of Murray’s works Brotherhood was made for inclusion in a show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. The text piece read OSAMA BIN COHEN in large golden letters projecting from the wall, referring to both a Muslim and a Jewish name being combined to make one incongruous sounding name. Further obvious ‘insult’ arrives from the conjoining of the name of the Al Qaeda leader, widely considered a terrorist opposed to the Jewish state, and a common Jewish name. The Goodman gallery decided that the piece was too potentially offensive to exhibit seeing that the gallery is located in a Muslim section of Cape Town and many of the gallery’s clients are Jewish (Williamson, S. 2009). When I asked Murray about this incident in an interview he said he felt that the exclusion of the work from the show was a short-sighted decision by the gallery. Murray believes that art like his piece Brotherhood has the possibility of opening up debates and discussions and so should not have been censored. The Goodman Gallery had many meetings with Murray to discuss the withdrawal of the piece and Murray said that this work had really “touched a nerve”. Murray goes on to say that he achieved what he wanted from the piece because it was exactly those preconceived notions of culture, religion and identity that the work was addressing that was exposed in the reaction to the work by the gallery staff and he considers it “a job well done” (personal communication, 2 August 2010).
From Murray’s reaction to his censorship from the Goodman Gallery one can tell that although he was disappointed with the exclusion of the work, he still felt that “it was a job well done” because it had “touched a nerve” and created the reaction that he would have wanted from the audience anyway. As he puts it: “There are profound similarities between the Jewish and Muslim religions. What was interesting was that the internal discussions around showing the piece were exactly the kind of discussions that I would have liked to have encouraged publicly”. This tells me that Murray thrives on exactly that reaction and does not shy away from negative reactions to his work. The controversial nature of his work obviously suggests that not everyone will agree with everything he is saying. He has created a platform from which he can voice his opinions and freely express himself and that platform is the work that he creates and the risks that he takes. Negative reaction from a few may mean that the work is creating its desired effect. When asking Murray about the withdrawal of his work from the Goodman Gallery, he stated that the censorship was a one time thing and that if it ever happened again he would be forced to withdraw from the show. Murray went on to say that it is easy to make offensive works and that if he was looking for media attention he could produce a few slanderous works and be labelled a “media slut”. Clearly Murray strives for his work to be talked about and engaged with on a much deeper level than for the shock value or provocation aspect alone (personal communication, 2 August 2010).
Murray’s 2008 exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, was titled Crocodile Tears, so named perhaps to express an insincere display of grief either by the artist or by corrupt politicians who feel no remorse for exploiting the country and its money. The exhibition was clearly about wealth, money, excess and power and explored political themes relating to current events in South Africa. For example, a text piece aimed at Jacob Zuma reads: “Every time I hear you sing the machine gun song I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”. The piece is called Tragi-com. The machine gun song or Mshini Wam is a song that was sung during apartheid and the lyrics mean: “Bring me my machine gun.” It was sung during the struggle to motivate people against the white apartheid government. Today, 20 years after the fall of apartheid, many people are asking if the song still has any relevance for the ANC as a call for arms. Murray’s text piece manages to pose a prying question waiting to be asked in response to the government’s seemingly oblivious attitude towards the calling for arms whilst we are experiencing one of the highest crime rates in the world. In commenting on this hard-hitting exhibition, Mary Corrigall puts it succinctly by saying: “It’s a rare occasion but, every so often, an artist or cultural producer creates a product that taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist with such accuracy – unearthing the underbelly of present-day conditions with such precision – that it makes one’s skin tingle and crawl.” (http://www.brettmurray.co.za/essays-and-texts/mary-corrigalls-crocodile-tears-review/)
Crocodile Tears visually addresses opulence and wealth most obviously in the use of bright gold-leaf applied to the text pieces and some of the works and there are also allusions to Renaissance dress and high society mores. Sculptures of copulating dogs and direct text pieces point fingers to our government and its corrupt dealings. Crocodile Tears IV (2008) is a cut-out image in mild steel of a woman dressed in an elaborate, frilly dress with an extravagant headdress. She has a dark skin colour and is crying a long line of blue tears down to a puddle on the floor. The opulent gown and headdress with its details are all covered in gold leaf and recalls pre-revolution French aristocracy. The image speaks directly of the accumulation of wealth and the excess of it, i.e. decadence – with oblique reference to the luxurious lives of many politicians in South African ruling circles.
Much like the French revolution, in fact, recent strike action by public service workers have pointed fingers at the wealth of the government and even blamed corruption for the fact that they are paid so little while the elite few live in the lap of luxury. Unlike a cartoonist who would represent a likeness of the character being caricaturised, Murray hardly uses distinctive faces of specific individuals, but prefers to use metaphors.
In conclusion, Murray’s interrogation of his own identity and his place in South Africa today has resulted in a body of work that is both highly critical of the current government but also highly critical of most forms of power in general. Murray speaks broadly and effectively in a way that is accessible to most people because of the simple and popular language that he has developed. The importance of artists like Murray can be seen and measured by the responses that he has received from the public and his critics. Murray’s uncompromising criticism of the world around him expressed through shocking and funny artworks that utilise the power that humour has to break down boundaries and subtly encourage change by pointing out obvious faults in a new and exciting way. His use of a combination of hurt and humour are seamless. A comment by Colin Richards encapsulates the power of humour neatly as follows:
Humour seeks to make light of a dark world, or vice versa. It is part of our incessant, courageous struggle to create an imaginative space in which to live more fully. Where hurt and violence can feel generalised and indifferent to the particular, humour always seems ineluctably particular and individual. The sense of humour also distinguishes the human animal from the purely animal. Humour may even be a sign of what it means to be fully human. (http://artsouthafrica.com/?news=45)
Murray’s particular use of humour together with a biting critique transcends the boundaries of caricaturing as carried out by newspaper cartoonists and displays a sophisticated level of intellectual grappling with issues that pertain to our politics and society. In South Africa today, fragile lines are being crossed that will inevitably erode away at our constitution and it is artists and thinkers like Murray who give a voice to the rest of us who may often feel voiceless.
1) The proposed “media tribunal” and the Protection of Information Bill is an attempt at regulating what can be reported on and what constitutes a state secret. The tribunal could have serious repercussions on the media in terms of freedom of expression. The government believes that it is necessary to limit the amount of ‘damage’ that a reporter can do to an innocent party by publishing false or damaging information. Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance has said that “If passed, the Protection of Information Bill will criminalise investigative journalism.” Zille furthermore said of the draft Act described by the Freedom of Expression Institute as a bid to cover up wrongdoing and silence criticism of the government: “Just like under apartheid, the government will invoke the national interest to cover up every abuse of power.” (http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/295523)
2)See addendum 1a for image
3)See addendum 1b for image of Brett Murray
4)See addendum 1c for image
5)This work was first exhibited on Robben Island in 1997 in an exhibition titled Thirty Minutes. Nelson Mandela, and other political prisioners, were imprisoned on Robben Island for decades during the apartheid era.
6)See addendum 2a for image
7)See addendum 1d for image.
8)One might also recall here the response of Nelson Mandela to Jonathan Shapiro when the cartoonist apologised for any offence he might have caused with his depictions of the then-president. ‘that’s your job, Zapiro’, Mandela replied, laughing, ‘That’s your job.’”(Williamson, S: http://www.artthrob.co.za/00may/reviews.html).
9)See addendum 2b for image
10)See addendum 2c for image
11)See addendum 2d for image
12)“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” has been a popularised saying from the book Animal Farm by George Orwell. The move of power from humans to animals in the book shows this power shift results in the same mistakes being repeated by the animals too. The saying refers to the dangers of absolute power and the corruption that inevitably follows.
13)See addendum 2e for image
14)Yiull Damaso’s painting has been a hot topic for debate recently. His painting is a take on Rembrandt’s 17th century masterpiece “The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” portrays Nelson Mandela as a corpse in a loin cloth being autopsied by Nkhosi Johnson, a well known South African AIDS activist who died at the age of 12. Nkosi Johnson points to Mandela’s arm that has been stripped of its flesh. Other politicians like Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel, F. W. De Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are all gathered around the body watching intently. Many responses were of outrage and disgust towards the painting and the representation of Mandela as lifeless. The ANC referred to the painting as an insult and compared it to witchcraft. “The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso,” party spokesman Jackson Mthembu told the Guardian. “It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society.” Mthembu also went on to tell the Guardian that the work is racist because in African society it is an act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person in a work of art . According to the artist, Yiull Damaso, “We have Nelson Mandela, one of the great leaders of our time, and the politicians around him are trying to find out what makes him a great man. Nkosi Johnson, the only one in the painting who’s no longer alive, is trying to show them that Mandela is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country. ” Damaso argues that he is trying to make people confront death and that although Mandela is a great man, he is still just a man. He believes that the eventual passing of Mr. Mandela is something that we will have to face, as individuals, as a nation. See addendum 3a for images
15)See addendum 4a for image.
16)Bart Simpson is a character from a popular American TV show called “The Simpsons”. The show is a fictional, animated look into the lives of a typical family in an American town called Springfield. It is a humorous caricature of American society and a well-known symbol of American culture.
17) See addendum 4b for image
18)Jacob Zuma is the current President of South Africa and of the ANC, African National Congress.
19)See addendum 5a for image
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