Art and Zuma: or, The Fear of the Nation

by Kelwyn Sole on May 23rd, 2012

Isn’t the hoo-hah over ‘The Spear’ getting interesting? I think cracks and fissures are showing on both sides of the argument; the champions of the sanctity of race and privacy (not synonymous, though) on the one hand, and the champions of an abstract, all-encompassing ’freedom of expression for artists’ on the other.

The playing of the race card by some critics of ‘The Spear’ seems to depend on an assumption that has plagued SA for a long, long time – i.e. the notion that a critique of one person is ipso facto a critique of everyone in his/her race. Segregation and apartheid generated this view, which eventually became a keystone of black resistance to racist policies in turn ( ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’). If one views this artwork through those lenses, as does e.g. Rehad Desai with his ’300 years of dispossession’ argument, then the work is indeed racist.

One is tempted to say that this viewpoint should be on the wane – except it isn’t; partly cynically, as a crucial element of the ‘race card’; but partly realistically, because racism is far from dead in SA, and many whites do indeed see all black people as a homogenous group. (By the by, one wonders why Ayana Mabulu’s similar painting a number of years ago (‘Ngcono Ihlwempu Kunesibhanxa Sesityebi’) didn’t provoke a similar uproar?).

I’m prepared to see this is a critique of the President – the rubric ‘Hail to the Thief’ in the exhibition points to this, and the displaying of the genitals can be seen as a reposte to Zuma’s private life, as this is perceived by some people. What it does point to, then, is a crisis of governance - that has split South Africans re the actions, and therefore legitimacy, of Zuma’s regime. In this light, I would be prepared to bet that most of those offended by the artwork are those who see it politically, and are acting in defence of the legitimacy of the ANC.

However. A number of years ago, in an interview in ‘Wasafiri’, I remarked that there are now two South Africas; one which experiences itself as full of good intentions, upright, using the offices of the State to develop the country etc etc; the other, which experiences the country as a dire and violent domain where anything goes – “It’s as if all the judges, legislators, sportsmen, consultants, politicians etcetera are on an ice floe, floating on a warm current away from the rest of us, waving encouragingly and shouting to us to be of good cheer all the while”.

The artwork itself is not very imaginative and a tad infantile. However, it got me thinking that, rather than playing the game by the rules and discourse of those in power, it may be necessary to show the effects of the present government as crudely, and as in theirfaces, as possible. If one can make an analogy, Andile Mngxitama’s letter re the negative review of Rampolokeng’s latest collection in the M&G says this better: “Rampolokeng’s use of language should be celebrated as anti-facist – its power forces us to look full-on at the rotten corpse of liberation and all its gore. … (he) eschews the easy road of praise – singing or tiptoeing aroud power, all of it, from the smiling liberal establishment to the iron-fisted black neocolonialists of the ANC. Often he throws us in the deep end and does not throw in any false rope to help us climb back to this same shit-infested democracy… “. One can say the same about a possible direction for fine art, as evinced in works like Murray’s and Mabulu’s.

I got to thinking: isn’t this now a necessary attitude and response from artists? It allows one to look at the dispute taking place in a different way.

My own sense is that there’s another, very specific issue that is being argued through here, albeit implicitly and at times unconsciously. And that issue is the legitimacy of the present version of the ANC government.