Marco Werman speaks with The World’s Cartoon Editor Carol Hills about the emotional and historical buttons pushed by a satirical painting of President Jacob Zuma. “The Spear” by Brett Murray had South Africans fuming and counter-fuming for three weeks until it was taken down on May 30th by a Johannesburg gallery.
The painting that launched a thousand political cartoons in South Africa is called “The Spear”.
It’s by a South African satirical artist named Brett Murray but President Jacob Zuma found nothing funny about it.
Three weeks of protest marches, boycotts, counter-protests, editorials, finger-wagging, and sober discussion about the role of free speech in the New South Africa have followed the painting, which was hanging in a Johannesburg gallery until May 30th.
It’s now down but you can see some of the cartoons it inspired in this slideshow by The World’s Carol Hills.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. South Africa has been all a twitter, literally, lots of tweets about a painting. The painting depicted president Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed. It was part of a gallery exhibit in Johannesburg but it isn’t anymore. The gallery removed the painting yesterday after reaching a sort of, kind of agreement with the African National Congress. The World’s Carol Hills has been following the case. Carol, remind us how this got started and caused such a furor.
Carol Hills: Well, it all started with an exhibit in a Johannesburg gallery by an artist called Brett Murray. He’s a satirical artist and this was satire. The image, it’s a classic kind of propaganda image from the earlier soviet period of Lennon standing there holding a book and looking regal. So you have Zuma standing there with his penis exposed.
Werman: And the African National Congress, ANC, and president Zuma reacted. Why wouldn’t they?
Hills: They went wild and not only them, a lot of South Africans did. But the ANC in particular was going to sue the newspaper that published a picture of the painting. They were taking the gallery to court and they wanted to ban the painting. In a space of two weeks they organized three different protest marches. There was a boycott of the gallery and then last week two men entered the gallery and defaced the painting so then the gallery was shut down for several days and reopened a few days ago.
Werman: What is at the heart of the controversy, Carol, if you get deeper here? I mean besides the obviously offensive image of a sitting president shown with his genitals exposed?
Hills: Well, a lot of it comes down to race which is a perennial issue in South Africa. The artist, Brett Murray, is white. The president is black. Showing the president exposing his genitals for many South Africans recalls the humiliation of the apartheid era. In the apartheid era if you weren’t carrying your ID and you were black you could be strip searched. There’s old stereotypes of the oversexed black African. So it plays into all these things but it also plays into what is the role of freedom of speech in post-apartheid South Africa. So you have journalists, you have cartoonists and artists saying this is about freedom of expression. This is satire. This is what satirists do. Jacob Zuma is a really easy target. He’s somebody who a lot of people make fun of, black and white in South Africa. He has multiple wives, multiple mistresses, at least 22 children. So satirists feel he’s fair game. But there’s this sort of dignity issue and lots of people who would normally criticize Zuma were writing letters to the newspaper that published a picture of the painting and the gallery saying this is unacceptable, this is horrible, you can’t do this. So it really raised these tensions.
Werman: Right, and obviously made it a very potent issue. So what becomes of the painting now?
Hills: Well, the agreement that the gallery and the ANC reached yesterday is that the painting is taken down. The gallery has taken it down. Interestingly the painting had been purchased even before the exhibit opened May 10th by a German art collector and he says he still wants it even though it’s defaced. The gallery says yes we agree to take it down. The ANC says okay we won’t go after you in court but the gallery says we feel kind of beaten up by this. We feel that we were bullied by the ANC and the ANC is defensive saying oh no, no we didn’t come in and take it down ourselves. We didn’t prevent anyone from painting. We’re just doing what we think is right and it’s around dignity. So it’s very tricky.
Werman: And if there’s freedom of speech we have the right to talk about it.
Werman: You can see the offending painting both before and after it was defaced. Also Carol Hills has got a slide show of South African political cartoons that have been responding to the controversy. Those are all at theworld.org. The World’s Carol Hills, thank you so much.
Hills: Thanks, Marco.
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