Symbols from the eye of the storm

2012-06-02 08:56

I’ve always believed that art is a powerful force.

I’ve seen it work as a megaphone in the star system, elevating brilliant young thinkers to global platforms.

I’ve witnessed it as a force for life change in the workshop process, steadily transforming the consciousness of murderers in prison or helping child-abuse victims share their story.

In disadvantaged communities, I’ve seen art literally become a meal on a table by offering a sustainable means of income.

And in the public domain, I’ve watched art provoke passing citizens and generate heated debates that challenge oppressive systems, apartheid included.

But until The Spear (16N), I had no idea that a piece of art could be this powerful – that it could provoke marches, be declared an issue of national emergency, trot out a small battalion of lawyers and generate multimillion-rands worth of media.

In the process, The Spear (16N) was taken away from the art debate by career politicians. One painting, one part of it – a penis – came to embody a gallery’s entire output.

It was taken out of the context of its exhibition and turned into a political tool. Fair game, perhaps; satirical propaganda asks to be used as counterpropaganda.

In the process, it touched a deep nerve, teaching me a great deal about my country and leaving me with many new questions to ask when I preview an exhibition.

But it has also left me angry.

Perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation, but there are two symbols that remain behind most powerfully when I try to interpret the storm that raged these past two weeks.

The attack on the painting in the Goodman Gallery broke across the TV screens in our office one morning. It seemed to play out in slow motion, almost like a performance.

What stuck in my head from the surreal spectacle is the X that was painted over the president’s face.

After the peace dove, it was the X that became the symbol of our new democracy.

I worked with several voter education projects in the early 1990s, when we were tasked to use the X as a sign of a nation’s right to vote.

I remember working with Lucky Dube and other famous local musicians making videos and holding workshops about the power of the X and the rights it represents.

When I watched the attack on the art piece rerunning endlessly on TV, I wondered to myself: is this art-basher actually voting?

Is he expressing his right to his opinion by making an X on the work because he feels voiceless?

I was willing to entertain the idea that effective art puts itself on the front line and opens itself to risks.

I was sure that the debate to follow would focus on art and its right to hang on a wall without being torn down because it offends.

I never imagined that one of the art vandals would be symbolically held aloft outside the same gallery a week later, a hero of the people, adorned and praised – for destroying art with the same kind of calm violence as I’ve seen in images of apartheid security forces burning books.

And then, in my mind, when Blade Nzimande stood in front of the crowd, head held high, and shouted those lines – “It must not leave our shores. Don’t sell it, it should be destroyed for good!” – he became the painting for me.

Like Lenin, a communist leader, a man of social philosophies, a supporter of women’s rights, a man who believes his political ideas will prevail for eternity.

But like the Lenin in the painting and like Gwede Mantashe next to him, there he stood, a naked emperor, a bully boy patriarch using his power to whip up populist ideology regardless of the impact it will have on a broader society – one that includes artists.

Artists like Zanele Muholi, who challenged her community’s gender myths, and Steven Cohen, who took his fight to the enemy who was censoring him.

Artists like Arthur, who called his song Kaffir and reclaimed the word despite the hurt it caused.

And artists like Brenda Fassie, who sang of her Black President even though it could have got her arrested.

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