The arts and the historical conditions of their creation are undoubtedly interdependent and not always easily demarcated, with each consistently blurring into the other. As critics such as Frederic Jameson have argued, the stylistic movement over time from realism to modernism and into post-modernism, has in many ways matched capitalism’s mutations from mercantilism to industrialism and into its recent global, speculative stage. This entanglement of art and the spread of Capitalism across the world has created tensions particularly in non-European societies, and the recent controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s The Spear, in South Africa, is a telling example of the tensions created by the contradictions that arise when European cultures collide with African cultures.
Jameson’s approach allows us to understand the social conditions that distort the abstractions of aesthetic form, meaning the role of the art critic (or observer) is not to enhance our appreciation of a work’s aesthetic qualities but to reveal its political and economic conditions. And it is from this position that we can examine the significance of The Spear by Brett Murray.
Murray is a well-known Cape Town-based artist, who since his first Hail to the Thief exhibition has been infamous in the South African art scene, dubbed as “the dark prince of South Africa pop (art)”. His Hail to the Thief exhibitions have dealt with the clash between Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism within South Africa, modifying ANC liberation struggle posters and flyers from the Apartheid era and molding them into a scathing attack on the slide of the ANC into neo-liberalism and corruption. One poster reads- “Amandla, we demand Chivas, BMWs and bribes”.
Yet it has been The Spear that has garnered the greatest attention. The work is inspired by and is perhaps a parody of Victor Ivanov’s ‘Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live’, and depicts Jacob Zuma in a triumphant Leninist stance with his genitals exposed, playing on the popular conceptions of Zuma in the light of his recent rape trial and ongoing public support for polygamy. Murray isn’t the first artist to attack Zuma, cartoonist Zapiro has been a thorn in the side of Zuma for quite some time, with Zuma suing Zapiro in 2010 for 5 million South African Rand after the cartoonist continued to draw Zuma with a showerhead following Zuma’s comment at his rape trial that the risk of HIV could be reduced by taking a shower.
Zuma and the ANC did not hesitate to condemn Murray’s exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, with the ANC spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, claiming “it is making a mockery of the highest office”. A matter of days following their threat of legal action, on the 22nd May 2012, two gentleman dressed in suits defaced the painting with a red cross and a splash of black paint. Barend la Grange and Louis Mabokela were later charged for the vandalism, and la Grange has claimed that Murray and Goodman Gallery are ignorant of the racial tension that the painting has created. La Grange claims to represent black South Africans who say that the painting is a symbol of lingering white privilege. Photos emerged, however, of a young Murray adorning an ANC t-shirt, on the front pages of the Times of South Africa under the ironic headline- “Murray, the ‘racist’”. Three high court judges have been asked by the ANC to adjudicate on whether the painting should be banned, and the hearing has been broadcast on live television, marking one of the biggest political debates in recent years.
The painting and its defacing has split public reaction – some respecting Murray’s freedom of expression, with the gallery saying “it is a sad day for South Africa when creative production is being threatened with censorship from our ruling party”. Others have condemned the ‘un-African’ depiction of Zuma as vulgar and crude, with the South African Association of Self Sustainable Communities claiming that The Spear “is an attack to all men, black men in particular. We see this as a demonstration of deeply seated hatred”.
Yet behind the paper-selling novelty of ‘Penis-Gate’ is the unequivocal commentary in offers of the ANC’s running of South Africa. The threat of legal action against Murray comes very soon after the Secrecy Bill that the ANC tried to push through Parliament, but was halted by mass protest and outrage. African liberation movements (Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, ANC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique) have longed survived on the memories of the liberation struggle, yet as these countries enter the 21st century and feel the sharp bite of the global economy, these claims to legitimacy are beginning to lose their salience. There is a growing political consciousness within a young African population, who do not remember the liberation struggles and are losing patience with an ageing political elite who continue to serve their own interests rather than the incessant poverty and precarious work that young Africans continue to find themselves in. It is within this young population that challenges to the ANC’s monopoly on politics have begun to spring from.
The rise in the last few years of Abahlali baseMjondulu (the shackdwellers movement) and the growing independence of COSATU (the Coalition of South African Trade Unions), means that the foreseeable future for the ANC will be one of great political struggle. Despite the ANC’s organization of a demonstration against The Spear outside the court house, playing the old liberation struggle songs and hoisting posters reading ‘100 years of selfless struggle’; this sort of pageantry is starting to lose sway. The recent dismissal of popular yet controversial ANC Youth figure Julius Malema whose polemical stance on issues that the ANC has tried to ignore for decades, such as the nationalisation of foreign owned companies, is evidence of the dwindling power of the ANC who can no longer enjoy the dutiful support it could in the initial post-Apartheid period. Its unabashed iron-grip on power is losing its legitimacy particularly with young black South Africans, who had seen Malema as their mouthpiece.
The reaction to The Spear is testament to an increasingly anxious ANC and represents a growing opposition to the ANC’s liberation-era mandate. Murray’s work indeed serves the purpose he seeks; it brings to light the contradictions between the Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism in South Africa- i.e. between Zuma’s public stance on polygamy as an intrinsic African value and the adoption of the European form of neo-liberal Capitalism. Whilst Murray’s art has continued to prove a provocative quandary for the ANC, we should be clear that as Slavoj Zizek has stressed- the “old modernist avant-garde logic of provocation, of shocking the establishment” has been eroded, brought on by a growing ‘culturalization’ of the market economy in South Africa- as culture recedes from a demarcated sphere free from the market, into a central component of the market itself, marking a significant commodification of culture. This has meant that many young South Africans who are forced into precarious and increasingly hard to find employment, have seen Murray’s upbringing and career in Cape Town reek of a lingering ‘white privilege’. As Slavoj Zizek has said “perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses are part of the system itself. The system feeds on them in order to reproduce itself.” South African society must thus harbour the power of art such as Murray’s and Zapiro’s to attack the ANC’s deficiencies, but the art in itself will not force progressive change on the ANC.