Art isn’t usually a life or death matter, but the controversy over South African artist Brett Murray’s The Spear (detail shown above) might end in bloodshed. When Murray decided to paint South African President Jacob Zuma along the lines of a famous poster of Lenin, but with the added detail of prominent genitalia, he knew he was courting controversy but may not have realized just how heated (and dangerous) the debate would get. Now that the painting has been vandalized, it’s natural to ask if that violence might extend to the artist or to those who support his right to free expression. Could someone die over this painting?
Zuma’s a controversial figure in South African politics. A polygamist, Zuma has been charged with raping a woman while serving as deputy president and has also expressed the belief that showering after sex will protect you from HIV. Aside from his sexual transgressions, Zuma is mired in a variety of scandals that have ruined his reputation. Murray titled the show in which The Spear appears “Hail to the Thief II,” a sequel to an earlier politically charged exhibition.
The prominent painted penis alludes to Zuma’s sexual escapades, obviously. (Apparently one South African cartoonist mocks Zuma by drawing him with a shower cap that refers to Zuma’s strange safe sex ideas.) The pose itself pays homage to Victor Ivanov’s poster Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live, which refers to the Communist affiliation of Zuma's party, the African National Congress (ANC). Zuma and the ANC have asked the courts to shut Murray’s show down. "The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Zuma claims in the court affidavit. In a separate statement, the ANC condemned The Spear as an "abuse of freedom of artistic expression." It’s up to the court now to determine which takes precedence—Murray’s claim to freedom of expression or Zuma’s claim to personal dignity. Supporters of Zuma base their opinion on the idea that Murray’s crossed over the line from satire to insult. Supporters of Murray wonder how Zuma can claim humiliation when he’s become famous (and infamous) for his many women, many children, and many “scientific” theories.
While the court of law and the court of public opinion raged on, a small group of vandals made themselves heard. As captured in this video, college professor Barend la Grange first painted red “X”s over the face and genitalia of The Spear. Lowie Mabokela then smeared black paint all over the work. Both men were arrested by security, which acted slowly out of shock and the uncertainty over whether the vandalism was somehow part of the exhibition. Fortunately, the vandals used oil paint, which conservators should be able to clean from the acrylic surface of the painting, which has already been sold to a German collector. Gallery owner Liza Essers responded post-attack that “[t]he extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much.” The ANC did not condone the attack, but probably didn’t shed any tears over it.
Is Murray just seeking publicity? South African art expert Ruarc Peffers told an interviewer that the vandalism wouldn’t decrease or increase the painting’s value and that “[i]n a week or two this will be a distant memory.” To those who would say that Zuma’s fueling the publicity fire with his lawsuit, Zuma responded in the court affidavit by saying that if he were to remain silent in the face of such indignity it would be like a rape victim remaining silent to protect their reputation—an astonishing connection to make for a man himself accused of rape.
Perhaps Murray knew that Zuma couldn’t remain quiet and guessed that a media frenzy would ensue, although I doubt he could even dream of the international press The Spear has attracted. Other South African artists, perhaps most famously William Kentridge, have taken aim on the tragic politics of that region through art, but somehow Murray’s painting struck a different nerve and emanates a much different vibration. I hope that Murray’s taking precautions against personal attacks, because, as Ai Weiwei has learned in his diplomatic dance with the Chinese government, even the most well-known artists can be made to disappear, especially when their art has become most inconveniently visible.