The Spear artist takes up arms again

2015-03-01 15:00

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“People say you look better on film but you never do,” quips Brett Murray when asked how he feels about seeing himself in a new documentary, Shield and Spear.

“I look short, fat and stupid.”

The media-shy Murray walks a line between witty and serious in conversation. He is a satirical artist after all, one who stumbled on to world headlines when the ANC took on his painting of a half-naked President Jacob Zuma. Amid court actions, race debates, an ANC march and the painting being defaced – all captured on TV – The Spear became South Africa’s most famous artwork.

The interview is one of only three Murray has given since The Spear debate exploded. Another was with

Steven C Dubin for a book the academic wrote called Spearheading Debate: Culture Wars & Uneasy Truces.

In Shield and Spear, which screens in Joburg next week, Murray discusses his life during the height of the drama. His turning point was when Enoch Mthembu, former spokesperson for the Shembe church, said he should be stoned to death.

Mthembu later retracted the statement.

“I got a call from Jonathan Shapiro [Zapiro] and he said: ‘Brett, I’ve seen a lot of hectic stuff, but I think you need to take care.’

“I took my family and we went to the West Coast.”

Murray’s experience is one of many featuring outspoken local artists and musicians in Swedish-born, New York-based director Petter Ringbom’s Shield and Spear. Lesbian photographer and activist Zanele Muholi is also prominent, as are Xander Ferreira of Gazelle and fashion crew Smarteez.

Local critics complain the documentary paints Murray as a hero – but the ANC wasn’t willing to be interviewed for the film. Audiences in other countries see it as a fascinating introduction to South Africa’s more cutting-edge culture.

Nearly three years later, Murray has a new exhibition opening mid-April at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, the first since All Hail the Thief II featured The Spear. It’s called Again Again. He chuckles: “This work is a continuation of where I left off but it has a different tone and flavour. Hopefully it will be seen as satirical and give insights on the continuing drama that is South Africa?…?Not even the state’s wrath will deter me from what I do.

“I won’t give interviews about it. I’ll put out a press release of only images and people must make up their own minds. They don’t need me controlling the conversation.”

When it comes to the race debate generated by his self-confessed “dick joke”, he says: “Those conversations were interesting and necessary. We need to be reminded and further educated.

“The Spear was a weird snapshot of where and how the state is prepared to respond to dissent. There’s an element of brute force. Three months later it happened again in Marikana, and in Parliament the other night.”

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