Dashiki Dialogues: A worse threat to freedom of expression

2013-10-09 10:00

Last week, the nation saw a subtle and perhaps even dangerous attack on freedom of expression. This time it wasn’t an attack by government nor was it by a political party. No, it wasn’t by some big belly politician with entitlement issues. The most sacred item of our constitutional rights was threatened by a loved creative economy of activists along with some ambivalent members of society.

Here’s how it all went down.

It began when the organisers of the yearly FNB Joburg Art Fair took a decision to censor the work of a famously critical painter, Ayanda Mabulu. It was a simple painting with his usual tropes of taking swipes at the head of state and the state of his head.

This is to say it was critical of President Jacob Zuma and some of his friends. We might even hazard to say his would-be handlers too.

The picture, which is set in a bullfighting ring, depicts Jacob of Nkandla belting his quintessential laugh amid a host of dying miners.

Zuma sets a police dog on one miner while stomping on another’s head. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles are in the audience to enjoy a killing ­convenient for their entertainment. Cyril Ramaphosa is also in attendance, accompanied by one of his friends from among the rich.

The painting is importantly titled, Yakhal’inkomo – Black Man’s Cry.

The apparently controversial painting, which was censored, accuses the president of the country and his crew of killing the miners who died at Marikana. Now the merits and demerits of the artwork have become immaterial in the important debate of what took place.

The bosses who put the art fair together took it down. The explanation was that paintings of Jacob Zuma always get negative attention.

Think of last year’s outrage around Brett Murray’s The Spear. It’s the type of attention the art fair does not need according to the money people. They confessed feeling that the painting might offend people whose money pays for the exhibition.

Now this means that, since the art fair benefits from sponsorships from people who might be offended by Mabulu’s work, the organisers pre-emptively avoided the disappointment of these funders.

Notwithstanding the protest by a few artists who threatened to withdraw their work, which led to Mabulu’s painting being returned to the wall, the danger was registered.

I noticed there was little alarm among the usually noisy classes.

There was, in?fact, a touch of sympathy for the art fair bosses.

This sympathetic dialogue forgets that far from money, there are folk who died so Mabulu can paint his dashiki too.

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