White Noise

2012-05-11 12:08

There’s the smell of fresh paint in the Goodman Gallery, where streety young men with difficult haircuts are hard at work.

One rests a spirit level on a canvas to test its line. It’s a gold painting of a Johnnie Walker logo with the words “Forward Comrades!”

All around twisted slogans slap, tickle and prod. “Amandla!” shouts a liberation poster – “We demand Chivas, BMWs and bribes!”

A raised fist is inverted to become an oppressive one.

On the floor, an enlarged bronze insignia, “President & Sons (Pty) Ltd”. Next to it, an ANC logo with a “for sale” sign stamped across it.

Liberation hero Steve Biko gets a nod in a work with the words “Biko is dead” – the painting is called Killed Twice.

Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s latest solo, Hail to the Thief II, is going up at the Goodman and its on-the-nose satire leaves no space for elephants in the room.

Coming round a corner, I encounter a portrait of Jacob Zuma in the pose of Lenin. The trousers are open and the presidential penis hangs exposed.

“I did Hail to the Thief I in Cape Town last year,” says the artist.

A slightly portly, young-looking 50-year-old, he has a thatch of brown hair and a soft-spoken manner.

“It was telling that the one question everyone asked was, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ I’d never thought of that. Must I be afraid? Is this part of some collective consciousness that we can’t criticise our leaders?”

Of all the work on show, it’s this depiction of the president that will set the most tongues wagging and most likely generate some howls of disapproval.

It can be read metaphorically (the naked emperor), or it can be taken literally – a man who cannot control his sexual appetite.

It’s mirrored in another piece deeper in the gallery.

Judy Seidman’s iconic poster depicting the Women’s March of 1956 has been tweaked to read: “Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be president.”

I ask Murray if he’s nervous about how people will react to his depiction of Zuma.

“Look,” he says, “it’s potentially problematic from a PC point of view. But self-censorship doesn’t form part of the satirist’s armoury, else we’d be critical praise singers.”

Later he points out a typographic work that presents the words “White Noise”.

It’s called Liberal White Man.

“It’s about self-censorship, asking: ‘Is this show just an articulation of my whiteness?’ I try to place myself as both the person throwing stones as well as the target of the stones.”

Murray has been exhibiting his particular breed of political pop art for almost 25 years, but I have never seen such single-minded, scathing anger from him.

His examination of the corporatisation of corruption is played off within a stylistic framework of giant insignia, struggle posters and communist iconography.

There is a sense of a legacy built on fraud. Giant emblems are emblazoned with the word “tender”.

There are ripples of Zwelinzima Vavi’s “predator state” speech all over the place, but Murray’s stinging political criticism is always neatly balanced by his caustic wit.

“One-liners that resonate,” he says of his visual punch lines. “My sketchbook is words. It has no drawings. I start with words.”

Repeatedly during our chat, Murray refers to himself as a satirist rather than an artist. He cites Zapiro, Ali G and David Kau as satirists who inspire him.

I move to a plinth holding one of Murray’s trademark rotund-figured sculptures as he pulls another from its bubble wrapping. It’s, er, a stylised Afro-futurist gorilla masturbating.

“This is actually a reversioning of a sculpture I made in the 1980s. Then it was an Afrikaner with a rifle on its back. In a sense, it’s come full circle. We had anger then and were throwing stones. We have anger now and are throwing stones.”

Murray’s first major show was in 1989 at the Market Gallery, the culmination of his student works mocking Afrikaner nationalism and institutionalised religion.

“I studied to avoid conscription. On that show, I managed to sell everything, took the money and buggered off overseas.”

I ask about his upbringing.

His father, he tells me, was a fervent supporter of the National Party.

He recalls being draped in an old South African flag to attend HF Verwoerd’s funeral.

Conscientised in his teenage years – by images on TV of black teenagers being killed in 1976 – he recalls parents patrolling the perimeter of his fancy boys’ school “to protect the white domain from the marauding masses”.

Angered, he spent much of the 1980s making prints, posters and banners for the struggle.

The artist is at pains to discuss his liberal politics because of the fury that met Hail to the Thief I.

“There was criticism that I’m only a privileged white reacting from a white perspective. One guy from Parliament called me a racist, right-wing apologist.”

So does he acknowledge the privilege of his upbringing? He snorts.

“I’m not a poepol. I’m on top of the shit pile – the middle classes here are. Absolutely, I speak from a point of privilege. But I still have opinions. I still have an idea of a better place that we can all live in and hope for a government that can try to achieve that.”

It’s no big surprise that Murray has returned to his protest art roots. It’s something I’m seeing all over the cultural scene at the moment – the sense of a new struggle emerging and of artists testing their voices again.

There was also a tapering off of the political after 1994 as our art began to examine the inner landscape

as well.

In 2002, when he was named Standard Bank Young Artist, Murray presented White Like Me – looking “humorously and critically at my skin colour and notions of identity”.

He turned to the broader theme of Africa as a playground for Western culture and famously won a sculpture competition that saw Cape Town graced with a large African curio sculpture sprouting Bart Simpson heads.

He turned to global politics, presenting George Bush as an international cowboy of war.

“But politics is my default setting. It’s the monkey on my back. There’s so much around again that’s feeding the monkey.”

On my way out, I ask if it isn’t all a bit simplistic – the political tone. He nods and smiles, and says the show’s “a little poppy, quite didactic and I suppose vitriolic too. But I don’t care. This is not a time for rich metaphors. I want to convey a message.”

» Hail to the Thief II runs at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until June 16

» Follow me on Twitter @sa_poptart

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