Brett Murray: Putting it bluntly

25 MAY 2012

Rory Bester believes that the violent outrage at Brett Murray’s painting of Jacob Zuma is as unsurprising as Murray’s work itself.

Brett Murray has been around for a while, poking fun at the drunkenness of power and the commodification of culture. His sculptures from the late 1980s are apocalyptic caricatures of the figures and features of apartheid — a policeman, in boots half as big as his entire body, with dynamite in his ears, and a legless butcher practising his trade on his own body — are works that accumulate the ­psychosis of white power.

Through the 1990s, Murray turned his attention to rupturing the sacred cows of cultural stereotype, messing with the Oros man, Colonel Sanders, Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.

These hybridisations culminated in his grafting several copies of Bart Simpson’s yellow head on to an oversized imitation of a traditional African sculpture, installing it in a pedestrian walkway in Cape Town and calling it Africa (2000).

Murray is not averse to toying with his own whiteness. For Thirty ­Minutes (1997), a group exhibition on the interaction between visitors and prisoners on Robben Island, Murray’s installation of photographs included a snapshot of the six-year-old artist, painted black and dressed as a “Zulu” warrior. The cultural caricature is redoubled in a rigid pose and vacant stare that (unintentionally) references the ­Golliwog. Referencing this photograph about 40 years later, Murray darkened only part of his shirtless body and swopped the “golliwog” for a silvered baroque wig to produce a photograph titled The Renaissance Man Tending His Land (2008). It is a potent portrait that wraps race, class, pretense and the cultural history of suburban gardeners into a comical commentary on the conditions of our postcolonial state.

What marks out works such as these is a reflexivity that has the artist implicating himself in often contradictory communities of identity.

But then things started becoming a little bitter and even nasty (but not necessarily unfolding chronologically). Murray was the Standard Bank Young Artist in 2002. His national touring exhibition, which comes with the award, was titled White Like Me. It lingered a while on the awkwardness of being and becoming (again) white in post-apartheid South Africa. There was a resignation in its public presentation of attitudes and beliefs usually ­confined to the privacy of dinner and pillow talk, a defensiveness in its navigation of belonging.

With Crocodile Tears in 2008, Murray was turning his attention to the new order and in particular its burning appetite for power. This trajectory became fully blown in Hail to the Thief, which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town at the end of 2010, and then its follow-up, Hail to the Thief II, now on at the ­gallery’s Johannesburg space.

The two iterations of the Thief repeat a number of works and share the sam iconography and aesthetic: elaborate heraldry, the typography of Russian revolutionary propaganda, the pomp and ceremony of Soviet socialism (read gold wreaths and red stars) and the home-made messages of anti-apartheid posters. The exhibitions even repeat Cash Is King (2010), a silkscreen figure of Jacob Zuma as Vladimir Lenin, based on a 1924 commemorative poster produced in the year of Lenin’s death.

Glorious leader

What Thief I and Thief II do not share is the display in Johannesburg of another figure of Zuma, this time in acrylic on canvas, titled The Spear (2011). Like the Zuma silkscreen, it is based on a poster of Lenin.

The original was produced shortly after a failed attempt on the Russian leader’s life with a slogan that reads “Lenin Lived, Lenin Is Alive, Lenin Will Live”. It is a defiant image of an invincible leader who stands in for the advance of an inevitable revolution. Although the three gunshot wounds did not kill Lenin, they are believed to have contributed to the strokes that eventually did.

It is a poster that has been spoofed and ripped off many times since. One of the more popular renditions is a swilling version with a new slogan: “I believe in one drink backwards and two beers forward.”

Like the original poster, Murray’s rendition comes at a time when Zuma’s leadership is being challenged ahead of Mangaung and the direction of the democratic revolution is being questioned. But I am not sure whether Murray intended this irony. What he did intend was to ­represent the president with his pants unzipped and his penis hanging out.

Hail to the Thief II opened on the evening of Thursday May 10. City Press ran a story focusing on The Spear the following Sunday, including putting an image of the painting on its website. On Monday, aside from a little twittering, it looked as if the coverage would remain in the entertainment pages. Then on Thursday, a week after the opening, the ANC demanded that the painting be removed from the Goodman Gallery.

The combination of this demand and the gallery’s refusal to buckle put the exhibition on the front pages. The presidency, trade federation Cosatu and (belatedly) the South African Communist Party duplicated the ANC’s “right to dignity” argument for the removal of the work, whereas the Goodman Gallery dug its heels in to stand for “freedom of (artistic) expression”. The story remained top of the pops until the middle of the weekend, when it got bumped off by one about either Tokyo Sexwale, Richard Mdluli or Julius Malema.

On Monday May 21, the Film and Publications Board paid an unscheduled visit to the Goodman Gallery, following up on a complaint it had received about the exhibition. It smacked a little of old-style intimidation, given that it was done the day before the preliminary court hearing to decide whether the work should, in fact, be removed from the gallery’s walls and the City Press website (remembering, of course, that Twitter and every other form of social media have already viralised the painting beyond any kind of recall).

Subtle as a brick to the face

On the morning of the court appearance, the offending painting was defaced by two members of the ­public, making the hearing somewhat obsolete.

What the newsworthiness of the story has done is limit the reading and contextualisation of the work to a standoff between constitutional rights and freedoms. It has taken attention away from what is an indifferent exhibition from Murray. Apart from lulling wordplay such as “Tender, tender, tender, tender is the night” and the menace of gold-plated knuckle-dusters inscribed with the letters V-I-V-A, there is little subtlety to Murray’s visual sloganeering. The values of a document such as the Freedom Charter become indistinguishable from the slap handed to those values by those in positions of leadership and power.

Amid the artist’s liberal use of vivas, comrades, struggles, manifestos, troughs, rots, kickbacks, buggery, monopolies and elites, there is little room in the exhibition to manoeuvre any substantial discussion, or to debate the inheritance of the past and the loss for the future. Unlike Zapiro’s equally controversial showerhead, which ruthlessly and rightly cut right into an inappropriate and naive remark made by Zuma, Murray’s effort feels too much like a teenage snigger in the boys’ ­toilets.

When I first saw The Spear, I was reminded less of the reference to Lenin and more of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph, Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), the in-your-face opening image in his 1982 book, Black Males. As the title suggests, it is a black-and-white photograph of a man in a three-piece polyester suit. The image is cropped at the chest and mid-thighs, the man’s pants are unzipped and his penis is hanging out. It is the only flesh in the entire photograph and all that alludes to his colour.

Opposing readings on either side of this photograph appeal to the same representations of nakedness and nudity in histories of art. On the one hand, writers argue that the work, in commenting on the absence of homoerotic desire in Western painting, makes a strong political statement about the visibility of such desire, whereas on the other, critics such as Kobena Mercer equate the perpetuation of images of naked black men and naked women to fodder for white homoeroticism and heterosexual male desire, respectively. Although I am not suggesting that The Spear is about a white artist’s homoeroticism for the naked black male, I am convinced that the painting needs to be read in the context of race and representation. The introduction of race can easily polarise the sides of a debate, but it also cannot always remain the (white) elephant in the room.

Secret desires and discomforting objectification

In an attempt to explore the complexity of this relationship between nakedness, race, representation and looking, African-American artist Glenn Ligon produced a work based on The Black Book (1986), another of Robert Mapplethorpe’s books of black male nudes.

In his Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-1993), the artist reproduces all Mapplethorpe’s photographs and intersperses them with differently sourced texts that critically engage the photography’s representation of race, sex and objectification.

Navigating a path between secret desires and discomforting objectification, Ligon complicates the ­representation of the especially naked black male body in white culture.

In revisiting Ligon’s work, I cannot help but wonder where the complication is in Murray’s work.

Ligon produced this work at the end of the so-called culture wars in the United States in which the consecutive governments of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior fuelled the fire of right-wing attacks on the indecency and even treachery of artistic practice.

One of the key battles centred on whether federal support, through the National Endowment for the Arts, should have been given to The Perfect Moment (1989), a curated exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s often sexually explicit photographs. Although Mapplethorpe had previously exhibited similar bodies of work with federal funding, it was the Corcoran Gallery’s withdrawal as a venue for The Perfect Moment tour, as well as the unsuccessful prosecution of the organising institution and its director on obscenity charges, that put Mapplethorpe’s work at centre stage of a new scrutiny.

This conservatism by especially the Christian right in the US has its parallels in the often disregarded extent of conservatism in South Africa, where constitutionally enshrined forms of “tradition”, along with conservative religious values, privately practise in opposition to the values of the Constitution.

What these three moments in ­Robert Mapplethorpe’s biography attest to is the same politics of representation that now has Brett Murray in hot water: desire, objectification, indecency, obscenity, race and the prospect of censorship. History. Repetition. Senses of self.

Rory Bester is an art historian at the University of the Witswatersrand’s school of arts