The Arts

May 31, 2012

Jacob Zuma and the truth of Art…

…the controversial painting, (The Spear)

By McPhilips Nwachukwu with Agency report

Recent controversy sparked off  following an exhibition of painting that depicts the genital of South African President, Jacob Zuma at Goodman Gallery , South Africa, has again brought to the  fore the power of art as both an instrument of debate, criticism, commentary  and social control.

The painting done by Brett Murray, and titled, The Spear has been variously interpreted to mean a whole lot of things. In the imagination of  many racially  steeped South Africans, the painting is racist and makes mockery of the traditional and cultural ethos and civilization of the black South African.

For the women, it raises gender question  about the superiority of the penis over the vagina. As one contributor puts  it during a phone in  at News Nite of the etv cable programme,” All the vaginas put together is not equal to one penis. What is the hush about the painting of  President’s penis?

It could have been any person’s penis. It could even be my  fiancé’s penis. What is the whole of these arguments over Zuma’s penis? It simply means is that the penis is more superior to the vagina because vagina is common and people use it to advertise product.”

But more than that, a whole lot of South Africans are miffed, and so, it is not surprising that they were  mobilized  by the country’s ruling African National Congress, ANC,decked out in the black, green and gold of the party’s symbol marched about two kilometers (1.2 miles) along one of the city’s busiest roads to the gallery in the upmarket neighbourhood of Park wood, where riot police formed a barrier between them and the gallery to protest and argue for the removal of the painting from the gallery and its website.

...the controversial painting, (The Spear)

For these protesters numbering  about 1000, the painting, which depicts Zuma posed like Russia’s Vladimir Lenin, is noting but  offensive and derogatory of the dignity and status of Zuma as the country’s number one citizen.

Given also the cultural differences and practices that shape South Africa’s society and moral fabrics, and of course, the antecedents of  President Zuma as a polygamist, his shown genital is been analysised by scholars  in race relation to mean an indictment on black South Africans as people without sexual control.

The painting is believed to promote racist stereotypes of black African men and their “supposed” unbridled sexuality. The import of this painting is very controversial that  it was defaced by two vandals, an action that  was highly commended by the ANC and described as a victory.

The saga surrounding the painting  is an indication of the level of racial  tension and xenophobia that still shape post Apartheid South Africa.

“One should not forget that South Africa is a conservative society, despite our liberal constitution. A painting like this could offend people of all races,” said Olmo von Meijenfeldt, an analyst with the Institute for Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA).

In a similar situation, Canadian Prime Minister , Stephen Harper was also last week the butt of a satirical artist, who  painted him nude  cracking jokes, while pundits crying foul and one federal department reportedly offer him  cash.

According to agency report, unlike in South Africa, where Zuma’s  exposed genital has sparked off hate arguments and  race debate, the nude painting of Harper has  only generated humour.

“In Canada, the painting of Stephen Harper has been met with some criticism, but mostly humour. Indeed, the painting, seen here and censored for the rather sensitive Canadian public, is rather funny. But it does make a real political comment.” Says our source.

Continuing, it says , “It is a form of political commentary that has inspired debate and discussion about Harper as PM and the appropriateness of this depiction. The debate has been rather polite, if not genteel, when considering the issue (Harper’s leadership style) versus the fact that he is a weenie (sorry, will stop now).”

These two paradigms of artistic representations reveal a lot of things about art in Africa as an instrument of debate and healthy discourse. It also makes important statement about the freedom or rather the right of the artist to express him self.

The way it is reported that Canadian society responds to the caricature made of their prime Minister shows the level human and creative freedom that shape the life  of Canadian society and its creative agents.

This is unlike in Africa, where everything is subjected to race and ethnic prisms. The action, also of the ANC,  which got a court injunction to ban the country’s City Press newspaper, which covered the exhibition, and also to ban the gallery to remove all public images of the work is seen to curtail the right of creative freedom and expression. This is a serious indictment and a major minus  in the continent’s index  of democratic growth.