The Spear artist finally talks – and stirs more controversy

Controversial artist Brett Murray this week broke his almost two-year silence following the storm that broke around The Spear, a portrait of President Jacob Zuma as Lenin with his penis exposed.

Speaking at The Book Lounge in Cape Town, at the launch of a glossy coffee-table book on his work, the satirical artist described the saga as “an ordeal” that left the main players “extremely vulnerable”.

After receiving death threats and a stream of hate mail, he began to plan to move his family out of the country for their safety.

He and his lawyers were told their phones were being tapped and his assistant of 17 years received violent, ongoing threats from his community in Khayelitsha.

The spokesperson for the Shembe Church called for “my public stoning to death?...?it was serious. We had to leave our house and studios for a safe place. We were terrified.”

In his witty speech, Murray revealed that Goodman Gallery owner Liza Essers also “received threats from people claiming to be Umkhonto weSizwe veterans that her gallery would be bombed”.

He described the events – an ANC boycott, a march on the gallery, court action and the defacing of the work – as “Kafkaesque” and “90% politics and 10% art”.

He took tranquillisers to stay calm as he and his lawyers desperately tried to defuse the tension around the painting.

He joked about receiving the state’s legal documents. The file contained full-colour images of his exhibition. “With a combination of fear and delight, I saw that Number 1 had to go through my entire show, work for work, and sign each page and image in his prepared affidavit. Talk about speaking truth to power – directly.”

He watched the state’s case collapse live on TV at cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro’s house and drank whiskey for the first time in 12 years as his legal team sent SMSes that included: “Did you hear that?...?the judge says your works are powerful.”

He also revealed in his speech that “Nazeer Cassim, one of Zuma’s personal lawyers, had been trying behind the scenes to get the ANC to withdraw the case, but with no luck”.

Murray also shared his respect for the ANC’s advocate, Gcina Malindi, who broke down in tears in court.

Murray told the audience he believed that the “defacing of the painting was staged”, but that it came as a relief, defusing the situation.

As interview requests poured in, he said he chose to remain silent “because I instinctively thought that this would be wise. I also just wanted to listen.”

Murray placed The Spear within his broader work and the book highlights his political activism as a student. He said he listened carefully to “the various debates and positions that were discussed” and found many relevant.

Responding to criticism that The Spear was an unsophisticated work lacking depth, he said: “The critical are a well-hung jury. And depending on my mood, I might or might not agree with them?...?It is a dick joke after all.”

Murray said The Spear “nearly didn’t see the light of day”. He almost didn’t add the penis to the painting and was in two minds about hanging the work.

Without missing a beat, though, he opened himself up to fresh criticism when he revealed the cover of his new book. It features himself in blackface and a wig.

He said that he wrestled with the decision to use the photo on the cover.

“Although the blackface trope is deeply problematic, I am the butt of the joke in this work.”

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