Politics of Art/Art of Politics

In recent years, the climate around political art in South Africa has come to epitomise some of the issues with the current ANC administration. Critical works by artists such as Brett Murray and Ayanda Mabulu have become the headlining acts for political expression and subsequent government interference. The way the ruling party has dealt with less than flattering depictions of President Jacob Zuma, in particular, tends to call to mind poorly handled national hiccups (and outright scandals) from the past year. One has to question why South Africa’s leaders feel the urge to react to these artworks; why they give them any attention when they have an entire country to govern. The answer is very likely related to the way the ANC of today operates and the general feeling of dissatisfaction with it among the media – despite what last week’s election results may indicate.


Viva Political Expression

The recent spate of contested political artworks began most famously upon the unveiling of Brett Murray’s The Spear at the Goodman Gallery in early May of 2012. The painting in question was of Jacob Zuma in a Lenin-esque ‘looking to the future’ pose, with his fly open and genitals completely exposed. It was exhibited in a series of Murray’s works entitled, “Hail to the Thief”. Many of the artworks show clear criticism against the ruling party – quite notably, an ANC ‘get out of jail free’ card – but none of these seemed to offend their sensibilities.

Shortly after, the ANC made known their intentions in a media statement to sue Murray and the Goodman Gallery to have the painting taken down, labelling it racist and a violation of the president’s dignity. Soon, an ANC protest took place outside the gallery and the City Press were forced to remove an image of the painting from their website. The Spear was later vandalised by ANC supporters, taken down, and the ANC dropped their charges.

Later that year, in an exhibition titled “Our Fathers” at the AVA gallery in Cape Town, artist Ayanda Mabulu published his painting Umshini Wam (Weapon of Mass Destruction). It depicted Zuma in an even further state of undress. He is painted in traditional Zulu attire with his leg raised and detailed genitals on display. Mabulu was not labelled a racist, although the painting was considerably more unflattering than The Spear. Spokesperson for the ANC, Keith Khoza, said that the party could not rule out taking similar actions to those against The Spear, but this never happened.

When, late last year, Mabulu exhibited a painting portraying Zuma dancing on the backs Marikana workers, a similar reaction was experienced: outrage and “disgust”. Mabulu has, in the past, created many artworks that ‘disrespect’ South African leaders. Most significantly is a work entitled Ingw ayizidli Ngamabala Isakuluma ikaka Okwesihlunu Senyama (You Sold us out), in which Nelson Mandela is seen kissing F.W. de Klerk and clippings from newspapers frame them with resentment and anger.

As Chris Thurman highlighted in an article late last year, it seems “you can say what you like about anyone – as long as it is not Zuma”.

In a commentary on The Spear, playwright Mike van Graan asserts that the position of political artists is to “expose the vanity, the hypocrisy and the excesses ” of powerful politicians the way a child might. By all accounts, this is what artists such as Murray and Mabulu do. It is a medium that cannot harm anyone in the ways other forms of protest might, but the ANC seem to appropriate these artworks as physical attacks. But as Mabulu explains in an article for the Mail & Guardian, “I’m not attacking you; I’m respectfully asking a question”.

Van Graan makes a radical statement in suggesting that we should “learn from our political leadership and blame Apartheid”. It is difficult to phrase his argument as eloquently as he does himself, but he suggests that Apartheid is as least partly to blame for our leaders’ inability to recognise artistic expression as symbolic, rather than purely literal. He continues to suggest that this is what creates the “racist paradigm” in which Murray (and not Mabulu) is labelled a racist simply for being white, and becomes the excuse for ignoring the criticism of real issues within the party.

The evasive and accusatory manner in which politicians handle PR from artwork is strikingly similar to the way they handle legitimate national incidences. E-tolls require that citizens pay extra for what they are meant to have a right to, in the same way that artists are made to pay in court for utilising their right to free expression. The Nkandla scandal has been dealt with by Jacob Zuma with a frankly unrealistic level of obliviousness. The latest reason used for the 200 million rand homestead being upgraded has been (and arguably quite insultingly), the rape of his wife. Most recently however was the censorship of DA and EFF adverts by the ANC-funded national broadcaster, SABC. It is not a far stretch to assume that there was interference in banning the adverts of the two strongest opposition parties to the ANC. Censorship of adverts, like censorship of art, is not what one would expect from a supposedly free and democratic country.

Both President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, have been painted rather famously in the nude and either paid no attention or had wonderfully funny responses. If the ANC and Zuma learned how to react (or rather, not) from leaders such as these, we might end up with a more constitutional South Africa, and a political art scene that understands metaphor and can have a sense of humour.


Take a look at this video I compiled on the youth, art, politics, and the recent election in South Africa. I attempted to keep it casual and light as a compliment to the article. Enjoy.