Nude Painting Scandal Shows South Africa’s Racial Tensions Are Still Raw

A painting of black President Jacob Zuma, in full frontal nudity, by a white artist creates a racial controversy that reminds South Africa the wounds of the Apartheid are not even close to be healed

By Jean-Philippe Rémy*
LE MONDE/Worldcrunch

JOHANNESBURG– It’s a grade-A scandal, with sex, politics and – because this is South Africa – a racial dimension. At the center of the scandal is a painting by South African artist Brett Murray. It depicts South African President Jacob Zuma, and was shown in a Johannesburg gallery as part of an exhibition called “Hail to the thief II.” Zuma is

Spear of the the nation by Brett Murray
Spear of the the nation by Brett Murray

represented like Lenin in a realist Bolshevik painting of the 1960s, but without any pants or underwear, exposing large genitals painted deep red. The title, “Spear of the Nation,” confirms that the artist had no intention of being subtle.

The Goodman gallery is the most famous gallery in South Africa. It sells to rich collectors, and doesn’t do scandal as a marketing ploy. Liza Essers, the new owner, comes from the world of finance and has a lot of ambition for contemporary art, but angering South Africa isn’t part of the plan. This sort of thing accentuates racial problems: whites are accused of indulging in a type of codified racism of which “Spear of the Nation” is probably the “most prominent example.”

The day after the opening, curious crowds flocked to the gallery. Comments flew and anger grew. Was this the end of the “Rainbow Nation” fairy tale? Each person feels defined by their skin color, as if each hue had its own set of predetermined values and opinions. A white artist ridiculed a black president? White people say it is art, black people say it violates their dignity. This dialogue of the deaf is further proof that racism is still prevalent.

President Zuma asked the gallery to take down the painting. They refused, stating their right to free speech. As a result, Zuma is suing the Goodman gallery and the artist for violating his right to dignity, a value enshrined in the South African constitution alongside free speech.

Meanwhile, other South African artists are strangely silent and Brett Murray is holed up. In an interview, he declared that he did not understand the controversy, since his painting was meant to be a social “satire.” Satire is supposed to be fun. But there’s nothing to smile about when you look at Brett Murray’s work, which is laden with anti-ANC (African National Congress, the ruling party) rhetoric.

Anger spills over

A few days later, two men entered the gallery, one white and the other black. The former, Barend La Grange, took out a red paint bucket and painted crosses on Zuma’s face and crotch. The latter, Louis Maboleka, daubed the canvas with black paint, until a burly security guard pinned him down and gave him a head butt in front of the cameras. These images soon provoked a new outcry: why was this black security guard so violent with the black man while ignoring the white one? This debate quickly died down; Barend La Grange said in court that he acted to avoid a “racial war.”

The ANC called for “all of South Africa” to demonstrate in front of the Goodman gallery, to force them to take down the painting. Fifty thousand protestors were announced, but only 2,000 activists came to walk along the large, blocked Johannesburg boulevard leading to the gallery. The anti-riot police, horseback units and circling helicopters were totally ridiculous compared to the small crowd walking up the boulevard.

In front of the Goodman gallery, a couple of speakers voiced their uncensored opinions. “We must prevent the painting from leaving South Africa and we must destroy it,” demanded Blade Nzimande, secretary general of the South African communist party, which governs with the ANC. Another speaker lashed out against the “progressive whites” who supported the ANC’s years of struggle but are now criticizing it. Talk about populism. Politics are always racial in South Africa.

In the end, the ANC and the gallery signed an agreement to remove the painting “because it was vandalized.” The agreement came just in time to avoid a catastrophe. Unfortunately the scandal never provoked a real debate- even though scandals often serve to bring certain things in the open. Arts South Africa editor in chief Bronwyn Law-Viljoene says: “The only thing you see in this painting – since removed and sold to a German collector – is a naked, humiliated black body. There may be places in the world where showing naked bodies is inconsequential, but not in South Africa. Apartheid was the humiliation of Blacks. The art world can’t be the only place for debate- we need to come together to talk about what is acceptable for the whole country.”

* Courtesy of LE MONDE/Worldcrunch

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