Protest Art’s aim is to create social change

By Mary Corrigall

FOR almost as long as heads of state have been the subject of official commissioned portraits they have been the subject of unsolicited satirical representations. Naturally, the former is designed to portray the leader in the best light as possible.

In the case of the latter, the artist or satirist assumes a completely antithetical approach; he or she seeks out and exaggerates the flaws, or should one say characteristics, of their subject.

Few heads of state or political leaders escape the gaze of the satirist; our society is hot-wired to deride those at the top.

It’s how we hold those individuals accountable for their actions, protest against their policies or simply attempt to equalise power relations between the public and politicians.

A postcard parodying Barack Obama, which is for sale online, shows the American president sucking on a cigarette.

“I am trying to stop… life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” reads the tagline. The internet is teeming with derisive products of Obama and to my knowledge his aides have made no public effort to have them removed.

One could assume they have not done so for a number of reasons; this phenomenon is part of the territory, given how images are circulated via the internet it is pointless trying to suppress such material, and lastly, and most important, to do so would interfere with artists’ freedom of expression.

So why is it that the ruling party has requested the Goodman Gallery in Joburg to remove from display a portrait of our president, dubbed The Spear, by Brett Murray?

According to a statement by ANC spokesman Keith Khoza, quoted in The Star, the request is grounded in the fact that the artwork is “distasteful” and “shows disrespect to the president”. There is no denying that the work is disrespectful.

Though the person in the artwork parades the demeanour of a powerful man, a stylised rendition of his genitals protrudes from his trousers.

The work is quite clearly intended to be “distasteful”; Murray wishes to deride his subject as a way of protesting against his behaviour.

For many SA artists like Murray, whose art-making was shaped during the apartheid era, art is seen as a tool of protest.

One of the most revered canons of South African art is dubbed protest or resistance art.

The ANC and other political parties encouraged the instrumentalisation of the arts; artists have a political, social and moral imperative to use art to bring about social change, was the message.

In his bid to have The Spear removed from public display President Zuma has assumed to renege on this position.

You can’t change the rules of a game you have set because the outcome doesn’t suit you.

If Zuma’s office feels so strongly that “disprespectful” artworks should not exist in the public domain, why have they not objected to some of Murray’s earlier works, such as Grave Turners, where he lists Steve Biko as Steve “kickback king” Biko.

Of course, you could argue that it is not the fact that Murray has deemed to protest against Zuma, but the seemingly “crude” manner that he has chosen to do so.

Unfortunately, Zuma has left him with little choice as his reputation is very much linked to his “member”.

One has to wonder why it is that the ANC believes Murray’s work to be a portrait of Zuma?

It is titled The Spear, which is not a nickname attributed to Zuma.

Certainly there is a physical likeness but it is not terribly close; this is not a realistic portrait by any means; it is a stylisation, which emphasises its fictional status. In other words, that it is not real.

Everyone recognises this portrait to be of Zuma because his genitals are exposed.

Our president’s sexual shenanigans are one of the characteristics we associate with him and they have come to operate as a metaphor for his lack of moral integrity.

Though he may be a polygamist he hasn’t even abided by the tenets of that once traditional arrangement.

However, his moral character is not what is under debate here. The matter at hand is the fact that Zuma wishes to silence Murray – and by proxy any of those artists or citizens in this country who assume to make public statements that he deems to be “disrespectful”.

This isn’t only an infringement on Murray’s rights as an artist, and a disavowal of the history of protest of which he is product, but echoes Murray’s assertion through this exhibition and its earlier iteration in Cape Town last year, that Zuma has spearheaded a culture in the ruling party where old values have been eroded in favour of self-serving policies.

If Zuma had to succeed in this action it would set a precedent that would lead us down a very dark path that would have implications for playwrights, authors and the public at large, who ultimately should be able to decide for themselves what artworks they would like to view.