Why I find The Spear unsettling

2012-05-26 11:24

The controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s portrait of President Jacob Zuma has stirred up a hornet’s nest.

On the one hand, it has elicited outrage even from people I know to have antipathy towards our head of state.

On the other, defenders of The Spear feel that Zuma’s sympathisers have no legitimate reasons to be aggrieved by the painting.

The arguments go from “Oh, it’s satire, show tolerance” to “Zuma has many wives – he has brought this upon himself”. It’s almost as though his choice of a lifestyle that jars with the dominant sensibilities invites and justifies ridicule.

Let’s put aside the arguments from some of Zuma’s sympathisers about the need to defer to authority and to show respect towards those who are in power. I have always felt that treating political figures as cultural figures, as fathers and mothers of the nation, isn’t the way to go because it means we can’t be robust in our engagements with them as a citizens when they mess up.

But what I think the vocal defenders of Murray are failing to understand is that people with different historical experiences can have a totally different reading of his “satire”. And although to some people his painting may convey his intended meaning – which I understand is to critique the supposed intersection of patriarchy and power in the person of Zuma – to some people his humour can fall flat.
 
I initially found the image – which struck me as a kitschy graphic rather the venerated “iconic work of art” that some people have described it as – unsettling. It wasn’t the artist’s appropriation and recasting of Zuma as a latter-day Vladimir Lenin that caused my discomfort; it was, no doubt, the depiction of Zuma’s penis that brought this uneasiness.

Let me explain why.

The genitals of Africans have a long, if disturbing, history in Western discourse. Being an educated artist, Murray would no doubt be more familiar with that history than I am. In an article that appeared in the Australian Feminist Studies journal, titled Are Small Penises Necessary for Civilisation? The Male Body and the Body Politic, academic Mary Spongberg argues that the genitals of black men were once seen as “primary signifiers” of race and civilisation. By the 17th century, what she calls the “mythical estimation of black penis size” had become standard fare in travel writing about the continent.

By the time Sarah Baartman became a curiosity in civilized European circles, black penises were a collector’s item of sorts. Spongberg cites the philosophical musings of anatomist Charles White in 1799: “That the penis of an African is larger than that of a European has, I believe, been shown in every anatomical school in London. Preparations of them are preserved in most anatomical museums, and I have one in mine. I have examined several Negroes and have found it invariably to be the case.”

Although some might argue that such things happened a long time ago, they would do well to remember that European art wasn’t born yesterday. The less said about the recorded history of how white people would take photographs of the penises of their black victims as mementos after lynchings in the US, the better.

Our own recent history as a country is littered with examples of the uses and abuses of sexuality to keep apartheid going. The Immorality Act, through which the state dictated who slept with whom, is but one example. The testimonies that came before the TRC about how apartheid police would shove liberation struggle activists’ penises in drawers to extract confessions and humiliate them tell another brutal story.

I am not surprised at the outrage The Spear has provoked, given this kind of history. It’s difficult for some of us to see the depiction of Zuma’s genitals outside the colonial discourses that pathologised black sexuality. And lest people think this is just oversensitivity about the phallus, a sculpture portraying a black woman’s vagina with a cigarette on it in the late 1990s caused a similar stir. It raised questions about whether black women were happy to be cast as helpless victims of patriarchy, and who had the right to appropriate and use their sexuality.

I’m sure there are creative ways of critiquing Zuma’s patriarchy without borrowing from colonial discourse.
For all his personal flaws, Zuma does not deserved to be reduced to what psychiatrist and liberation theorist Frantz Fanon might have called a threatening Negro with a penis in Black Skins, White Masks.

Outside the context of a fresh Zuma sexual scandal, many people would find this painting a gratuitous insult. So before anyone pleads freedom of expression as a defence for Murray’s painting, bear in mind that such a freedom applies even to those who view things differently.
 

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