Why such fuss now? It’s not new

2012-05-23 00:00

BRETT Murray is not the first artist to satirise President Jacob Zuma in a painting. Ayanda Mabulu painted the work, Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxa sesityebi (Better poor than a rich puppet), which shows Zuma and several other South African icons being skewered.

The painting was one of six exhibited at the end 2010 in the exhibition, titled “Un-mute My Tongue”, at Worldart in Cape Town, which depicted the desire of poor black South Africans to have their views heard and considered.

The work featured Zuma, Barack Obama, Robert Mugabe, P.W. Botha, Nelson Mandela, George Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu seated around a table, much like in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

All of the figures are hindered or compromised. Jacob Zuma’s penis is supported by a crutch. According to Mabulu, this is a metaphor for the perception that Zuma’s sexual escapades are out of control; the crutch implying he needs help to overcome the issue.

In an article on Worldart’s website, Mabulu said of the work that he was merely painting his perception of the roles that the state and the church play in a poverty-stricken environment.

If people were offended, it was probably necessary for them to look at reasons why they felt this way.

Asked whether painting political and church leaders naked was disrespectful, he said the figures were disrespectful of them and their people: they couldn’t expect respect if they don’t respect the people they lead.

Surprisingly, there was no outcry when Brett Murray first exhibited his controversial painting in an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town in 2010. That exhibition also featured works titled Chris “Hush Money” Hani; Walter “The Sweetener” Sisulu; Joe “Mr Ten Percent” Slovo; Steve “Kick-Back King” Biko; and Oliver “On The Take” Tambo.

In a review Mike van Graan, playwright and executive director of the African Arts Institute, said Murray’s President and Sons Ltd or his Hail to the Thief iconography echoed Cosatu secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi’s anger last August when he was scathing about the ArcelorMittal Sishen mine deal in which Zuma family members and friends shares worth millions.

At the time Vavi said the country was headed for a predator state where “a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas were increasingly using the state to get rich”; just like the hyena and her daughters ate first, the chief of state’s family ate first in a predator state.

Van Graan has since commented on the current furore in a column on IOL online, in which he says Zuma is not the first head of state to be exposed in this way. Examples he cites are Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“Artists generally portray political leaders in the nude to make some pointed satirical statement,” Van Graan said.

He added that artists used their art to express what politicians said in words.

“Thus, while Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi critiques The Spear as something that “can only be the work of a very sick mind full of hatred reflective of the damage our apartheid past caused to our society”, he forgets that, in response to the Democratic Alliance march on Cosatu House there were many Cosatu placards calling for Helen Zille to be “stripped naked”.

• arts@witness.co.za

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