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Sean O’Toole explores some of the portrayals of the naked black body that have elicited fierce reactions in SA’s recent past.

‘The news is my favourite sitcom,” said Brett Murray during a December 2010 press walkabout of his exhibition in Cape Town. Titled All Hail the Thief, the exhibition showcased many of the works and ideas currently on display in his controversial Johannesburg exhibition, albeit not the portrait of an exposed President Jacob Zuma.

Murray was in an acerbic mood that summer day.

At one point during the ad-hoc discussions he took issue with the title of Marc Gevisser’s biography on former president Thabo Mbeki. “It is not a dream deferred but a dream shat on,” he emphatically said.

And a little later: “I can’t fucking believe what’s going on. I laugh at it, but now it’s a bit more serious. For a while I couldn’t look at the news – it was too much.”

That was a year and a half ago. There was some grumbling about his appropriation of the ANC logo with the words “for sale” overlaid on it. The fuss was short-lived – and overshadowed by the debate surrounding Zapiro’s “rape of Lady Justice” cartoon, which appeared in the Sunday Times in September 2008. 

Like Murray’s painting of Zuma, The Spear, which (selectively) quotes a 1967 poster by Russian socialist- realist painter Victor Ivanov, Zapiro’s cartoon draws attention to the president’s midriff. Zuma is shown unbuckling his pants, albeit from behind.
The president’s groin area is a rhetorical point of return in many of Zapiro’s cartoons.

In a work published in the Mail & Guardian in March 2006, Lady Justice, who stands on a distant pedestal, stares incredulously at Zuma. He is singing Awuleth’ umshini wami (Bring me my machine gun). His machine gun, which extends from his crotch, is shooting sperm cells, not bullets.

In the event, the pending lawsuits against Zapiro, which many anticipated would clarify the limits and possibilities of satire locally, have been eclipsed by the official and public responses to Murray’s graphically explicit and scabrous portrait of the president.

Jester’s space
It is not the first time Murray has occupied the “jester’s space”, as cartooning historian Andy Mason defines it, and taken a pot shot at a sitting head of state. In 2006 he exhibited a series of self-portraits in which he wore a nappy, crocheted booties and bonnet. Murray’s school album pose was unvaried. Only the wording in the accompanying signboard changed. His list of types included “The Sycophant”, “The Artist” and “The President”.

“I wanted it to be a deadpan Buster Keaton portrait – like a nagapie (bushbaby) in the headlights of change,” he said. “Some are obviously political, like ‘The President’ and ‘The Sycophant’, who are obviously conjoined. Others were just about myself: ‘The Artist’ as profound wanker, the enfant terrible.”

I mention this brief history to draw attention to a set of possibilities. Murray, like most of us, is interested in the exercise of state power and, like Loyiso Gola and Zapiro, he is a satirist. But – and this is somewhat missed – Murray is also a bit like late-career Nadine Gordimer, who also has a take on Zuma. Make that takes.

In No Time Like the Present, an often turgid liturgical analysis of the freedom years, Gordimer has her characters debate the meaning of Zuma. “He’s the man to make our African democracy,” says a rural Zulu patriarch.

Elsewhere in the novel is this riposte: “Oh that fucking litany, Better Life, how often to face the dead with it, the comrades who died for the latest executive model Mercedes, the mansions for winter or summer residence, the millionaire kickbacks from arms deals and tenders for housing whose brand-new walls crack like an old face.”

Disillusionment of an activist

It is a view echoed by Murray, whose exhibition includes a silkscreen graphic of a silhouetted figure with AK-47 that forms the backdrop to a refashioned quote by executed Umkhonto weSizwe cadre Solomon Mahlangu: “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Merc’s and kickbacks.”

Gordimer’s novel, which like Murray’s art registers the increasing disillusionment of an activist white left, also includes a brief passage about Harold Rubin’s controversial painting My Jesus. The work depicted a naked black Christ figure on a cross, with the words “I forgive you O Lord, for you know not what you do” accompanying the image.

Exhibited at Gallery 101 in Johannesburg in July 1962, the work was seized by the police and Rubin, an accomplished jazz clarinettist, was charged with blasphemy. After weeks of legal arguing, a regional magistrate dismissed the state’s case.

The cipher of the naked black body bears scrutiny – especially because this issue is brazenly elided in the default-mode freedom-of-expression defence.

In 1990 Steve Hilton-Barber exhibited a photo essay in Johannesburg showing the initiation ceremonies of Northern Sotho youths living on his family farm. The photos, some still startling for their intimacy, prompted deep outrage among black audiences. Works were stolen. In the spirit of today’s bloggers, angry viewers penned their thoughts in the Market Theatre’s visitor’s book.

Expressing outrage
“Fuck off you white racist bastard,” offered one note. Another stated: “Go and get fucked you don’t know what you are doing, expose your own culture and let’s see your foreskin with all the diseases.”

A similar but different distress marked the debate around Kaolin Thompson’s sculpture, Useful Objects (1996), an ashtray in the shape of a black vagina. There is a historical context to this case: the ghost of Sarah Baartman’s severed genitalia unavoidably haunts portrayals of black feminine sexuality.

News of the artwork’s existence was originally published in the arts pages of the M&G, prompting Baleka Kgositsile, then-deputy speaker of the National Assembly, to write a scathing letter in The Star. Nomboniso Gasa defended Kgositsile’s right to complain in this paper: “What is so wrong with expressing outrage and disgust at a piece of art? Kgositsile has a right to express her views and a right to lobby for censorship or any other mechanism she and many others may find necessary.”
And this they have. In 1998 painter Mark Hipper was charged under the Film and Publications Act of 1996 for his exhibition Viscera, which explored child sexuality. The police investigation, prompted by then-deputy minister of home affairs Lindiwe Sisulu, was ultimately dropped.

More recently, in 2009, former arts and culture minister Lulu Xingwana refused to open an exhibition featuring Zanele Muholi’s intimate portrayals of lesbian couples because she considered them “pornographic”.

It is a truism generally to say that art rarely inspires mass opprobrium, let alone interest. Successful prosecutions of indelicate works are rare. 

It is a point of strategy missed by the ruling party. But maybe that is not the point.

In the original poster cribbed by Murray, a caption reads: “Lenin Lived, Lenin Is Alive, Lenin Will Live!” 

Perhaps this is the real undertow to all this populist rhetoric.