Zuma and South African art unveiled24/05/2012 # 07:30 # Express - current affairs # 4 Comments
The most popular topic currently explored in South African media is the controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma by artist Brett Murray, being showcased at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The controversy erupted as a result of the painting explicitly sporting Zuma’s genitals “hanging out of his pants”. The artist is one among many who are punting the right to “freedom of expression”, whilst being fully backed by the Goodman Gallery.
From an artist’s perspective, however, there are many views to be taken into account in terms of this particular “artistic expression”, and one view is that of the ANC who claims that the art work is a mockery and indecent depiction of the President. If this be the case, it may hold grave consequences for the future of art within South Africa. The ANC has subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Goodman Gallery.
In support of the ANC’s views, one has to consider the context within which this painting is being displayed as well as the possible intentions of the artist represented by this painting.
First, the entire exhibition is a satirical commentary on issues such as the abuse of power and corruption within the current South African government. The art pieces can therefore be viewed as bringing about awareness as well as challenging the government to move towards improving the issues within its governing structures. The problem with this particular painting is that it offers no clear explanation of how President Zuma ties in with the objective of the exhibition. The artist is yet to come forward with an explanation of the meaning behind this particular painting, as opposed to the others whose meaning can explicitly be accounted for.
Second, arguments from artists in support of this painting have been around the fact that many important figures in history have been artistically depicted in the nude. Why should the Zuma painting be treated any differently? The issue here is that the meaning or intention of creating a good or exemplary piece of work – through intimately connecting art with the public figure – is not present in this particular painting. If it were so, why is it that the president is fully clothed apart from his genitals being exposed?
Finally, it is interesting to note that the spokesperson for the Goodman Gallery, during an interview with Talk Radio 702, has reported that this is the first time since their apartheid exhibitions that the gallery has received so much publicity.
Is the inclusion of this particular painting therefore an addition to the meanings communicated in the entire exhibition, or just a piece used as an advertising campaign for the Goodman Gallery and the artist? Its removal would certainly not cause the entire exhibition to detract from its overall purpose but it would definitely make a difference in the number of people walking through the gallery doors and purchasing the art works.
The most poignant part of these questions is the implication they hold for art in South Africa. Are we truly exercising our rights to freedom of expression, or are we resorting to clever marketing tactics in order to get our work showcased and purchased? If the latter be true in this particular case, then the ANC certainly has an opportunity to make a valid case against the artist and the gallery in terms of their intentions behind showcasing the Zuma painting.
Sharney Nel is a second-year student in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.