The worlds of art and politics collided again recently when the South African President (and head of the ANC) Jacob Zuma was portrayed in a painting with his Presidential privates on display.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Brett Murray, a South African artist, did a painting of the country’s leader which was displayed in the Goodman Gallery. The painting was a skewered take on the old iconic Lenin poster (below) with a prominent distinction.
The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s ruling political party, immediately denounced the artist and his work and called for its removal, saying it was, and I am quoting the ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu: “…an abuse of freedom of expression.”
The President himself claimed that it “perpetuates a shocking new culture by sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, particularly the President.”
Now bear in mind that the ANC has been the ruling party in South Africa uninterrupted since 1994. Their leadership and membership is predominantly black, and their record is somewhat uneven.
Zuma is the definition of a political lifer; a man who walked the walk in support of freedom during the 70’s and 80’s of white minority rule. He was incarcerated on Robbins Island with Mandela and was instrumental in coalescing the ANC’s power with that of the powerful Zulu tribe, of which he is a member.
He ascended to the Presidency and continued the ANC’s hold on power over the last 15+ years. Zuma has also been involved in an obscene number of political scandals, questionable decisions and comments that could be considered at best ill-advised.
In brief, over the last decade Mr. Zuma has been:
1. Part of a corruption investigation regarding a government arms deal
2. Investigated regarding misappropriation of millions in government funds
3. A defendant in a rape trial involving a HIV positive woman (which led to his comments that he “took a shower after sex to protect him from HIV infection,”)
4. Got married to two women and
5. Fathered a child with the daughter of one of his long time colleagues, his alleged twentieth (20th) child.
Mr. Zuma has also vociferously opposed homosexuality saying that same-sex marriage was “a disgrace to the nation and to God,” and said that the solution to high numbers of teen pregnancy is to “confiscate their babies and have the mothers taken to colleges and forced to obtain degrees.”
Against this backdrop, Zuma was depicted by the artist with his privates on display. Naturally, the majority of South Africans were upset at the caricature. The government threatened to censure art in this vein, demanded its removal from the public view, and filed defamation charges in court papers against the gallery. A supporter of Zuma subsequently went to the gallery and defaced the painting by covering certain parts with paint (L.)
This is a completely hypocritical stance by a party that suffered for decades under some of the worst government sanctioned discrimination ever, but the party that won the minds of the local people and the world at large under Mandela is clearly not the party that now governs under Zuma.
Now while I do think that the painting was in poor taste, and the obvious disrespect for the sitting head of state is curious at best and at worst inspired by some latent racist motives by Mr. Murray, who is white. I also believe however the truth lies somewhere in between.
In his defense, Murray has said: “In the apartheid years, I created satirical images which attacked abuses of power. For many years I have used, and continue to use symbols with sexual connotations representative of political power and patriarchy,”
He furthered stated: “It is an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition and within the broader context of South African discourse. I never intended the artwork to cause any hurt or to harm the dignity of any person.”
I believe Mr. Murray and support his right to free expression, but I do not believe for a second that last part about not intending to harm the dignity of President Zuma. His point is obvious, no pun intended.
Jacob Zuma is the elected head of the country and as such demands a certain amount of respect and gravitas. This respect and gravitas does come with significant responsibilities, and Zuma has not shown a willingness to shoulder the burden of moving the country forward, preferring instead to rely on the old divide and conquer tactics.
As such he has shown his office considerably more disrespect than any work of art could portray. He is a shining example of power corrupting the corruptible and he continues to pursue his personal agenda with impunity towards any opposition.
The ultimate irony of this latest debacle swirling around Zuma is how far he is from Lenin, whose political life and struggles served as a roadmap of sorts for Zuma.
Lenin has been described as one of the most influential people of the 20th century, his rhetoric has been used in relation to every regime change in Russia since his death. Lenin has inspired revolutionaries worldwide, including Castro, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh.
It is doubtful if there are any positive attributes to be taken from the life and times of Jacob Zuma.
Or as Lenin himself said:
“There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel.”