A test of the limits, a test of democracy

City Press : Zakes Mda Interview

Question: Your work has been banned in the past. How did that affect your support today for the gallery’s right to show the Brett Murray painting?

In May 1981 the Directorate of Publications of the apartheid government gazetted the banning of my book, titled We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Other Plays.

This meant that none of the plays in that collection could be performed without risking arrest.

This was a terrible experience because, as an artist, you create work so that it can be shared with the public.

I vowed that I would fight for the freedom of expression in general and artistic expression in particular all my life.

I was very happy when these values were included in our new Constitution after liberation.

That is why I support Brett Murray’s right to create and display his art even though it may not be to my taste.

Question: In your opinion, has the painting crossed the line between freedom of expression and the right to dignity?
‘Dignity’ is very fluid and means different things to different people.

It can be used by anyone to silence criticism.

In my view, satire and parody are legitimate, whether I agree with the content or not.

Artists are very offensive people, and true satire challenges and ridicules mores, practices, cultures and beliefs of individuals and societies.

It upsets its targets precisely because that is what it is meant to do. Obviously this painting has been effective in doing so.

When I saw this painting, I did not know what it meant.

I could see that in its construction it effectively used intertextuality, namely the Lenin poster, a face that I thought looked very much like Zweli Vavi, a head that could belong to Mr Zuma and the penis that borrows very much from that famous photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe.

I tried very hard to read the message, but could not – until President Zuma helped me with the interpretation.

He says that painting means that he is a philanderer and a womaniser who does not deserve respect.

I was grateful for his interpretation and thought to myself, ‘Ah, the artist got it right then because that’s how the world views the president.’

And that view is informed by his own actions, such as sleeping with and impregnating the young daughters of his friends.

I am not talking of polygamy here because that is his culture.

I am talking of morally degenerate behaviour towards women.

Question: We can never go back to the old censorship in an age of the internet, but do you fear that self-censorship is heightened when work is attacked like this from all sides?

For me it is wonderful that people are talking about art – for whatever reasons.

It tells us that art does mean something, even to lay people.

Self-censorship exists already.

There are many artists who have a lot to say but are silent because they fear they will be sidelined if they create work that challenges the system.

They won’t get grants and funding, and government-sponsored gigs. A lot of the people who are calling for the blood of Brett Murray are themselves artists.

A well-known South African actor expressed his disgust of me when I wrote the simple statement of fact: A phallocentric life begets phallic art.

Self-censorship is insidious in South Africa.

I remember with sadness how fellow artists shouted down a brilliant young playwright called Tsepo wa Mamatu, who stood up and challenged Jacob Zuma when he was lecturing artists on their role in society.

When the ANC demanded that the gallery take the painting down, they were in fact demanding self-censorship.

Fortunately, the gallery did not oblige. The kind of art that is self-censored to accommodate the dictates of the ruling elite will never be world class.

It will always be the provincial kind of art whose role is to sing praises of the leaders, massaging their inflated egos.

Question: I’d appreciate it if you can go back in your memory. With regard to South African art and the government, can you recall bannings and controversies around similar-themed work that particularly angered you or affected you?

There is no specific banning that stands out in my mind because there were so many of them.

Every week the papers of the time published a long list of banned publications and other artistic products.

None of them caused the kind of controversy we see with Murray’s work today because we were used to bannings and took them in our stride.

We protested and moved on. It was, after all, the apartheid government doing what it did best.

Even when they banned an innocuous book about horses because its title was Black Beauty, we chuckled mildly at the ridiculousness of it all and moved on.

There is controversy this time because this is our democratically elected government and we expect it to occupy a higher moral ground than the previous oppressive rulers.

Question: And the depiction of nudes? Was this uncommon, or did it cause controversy?

Oh, the portrayal of nudes always caused controversy and would be outrightly banned.

You were allowed though to show the breasts of traditional women from KwaZulu or some such place.

Remember those were the days of a Calvinist ethos. Today of course you hear black people say naked bodies in art are against African culture.

Which of the many African cultures? The shamefulness over the naked body is something that came with our Victorian colonisers.

I have been to many exhibitions in Africa where naked bodies were displayed both by contemporary artists and by classical ones.

Sculptures of naked bodies from ancient African civilisation are extant.

So are the naked cave paintings of our ancestors, the so-called Bushmen people who are also referred to as the San.

Question: How did growing up as a writer under censorship affect your development and career?

At first it made us find subtle ways of conveying our message – you know, be double-voiced.

But we soon got tired of it because that tended to create an art of self-pity.

We challenged the system and defiantly produced our work without any self-censorship.

Many of us paid the price. Not only was the work banned, but artists were arrested.

Police would raid a township hall or a church hall where a play was being performed and arrest the people.

This was mostly with the performing arts. Paintings did not suffer much censorship because the patrons at the exhibitions were elite white liberals rather than the black masses.

When visual art was directed at a mass audience, such as posters, then it was immediately banned.

Question : Is there anything you can add to help give us some context here?

There is a final point that I want to make. This debacle is something very positive for our democracy.

It tests its limits. And that is a good thing. In many other societies, the government would have used its power to suppress this painting, summarily close the gallery and arrest the artist – or feed him to the crocodiles.

But in South Africa the ruling party followed the law. When it failed to get self-censorship from the gallery, it sought remedy from the courts of law.

That’s what people do in a democracy when they have a grievance.

You go to court even if your grievance is puerile. I am sure the ANC would have loved to have the power to stop the exhibition by decree.

But thanks to the Constitution that they and other political parties hammered out, they do not have that power.

That is a result of the admirable checks and balances that we have in our country. But it is also because of our very strong civil society.

Question : You are working in America. How is the rest of the world viewing the controversy?

This debacle has embarrassed South Africa greatly because it is in the news all over the world.

The world thinks we are a weird society.

But as Max du Preez reminded BBC World Service listeners recently, this sort of reaction to a painting displaying a president’s genitalia would have happened in any conservative country, not only in the Muslim world but in the West as well.

South Africa, despite a progressive Constitution, is a conservative country. Indeed it happened in America not so long ago.

In 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe was charged with obscenity in a Cincinnati court.

His crime? He held an exhibition of his photographs, including the famous Man in Polyester Suit, which depicted a black man in a suit with his huge penis hanging out.

It is the photograph that I believe inspired Brett Murray. Although the photographer won the case, the fact that he was charged at all spoke a lot about the absence of the freedom of expression in the Western world.

I say that we in South Africa are better than that. That is why we have a Constitution that protects artistic expression, sexual orientation and other rights that do not exist in many Western democracies.

In America they are still debating gay marriage, the death penalty, reproductive rights, issues that were long resolved by our Constitution.

We should continue to lead in the protection of these rights.

The ANC, on the other hand, should learn to be sophisticated enough to fight battles that are worth fighting.

If they had just ignored that painting, even I would not have known about it.

It was brought to my attention, and to the attention of the world, by Jackson Mthembu.

Now the president is even more of a laughing stock of the world.

Radio and television stations were for the whole of this week talking about his lifestyle, his penis and the women he has impregnated.