Earlier this month, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa commenced an exhibition of artwork by Brett Murray under the theme: ‘Hail to the Chief II’. The title of the exhibition is a play on the official presidential anthem of the United States of America - ‘Hail to the Chief’. The exhibition opened to a storm of controversy over a painting Murray entitled: ‘The Spear’, which features the President of South Africa, Mr Jacob Zuma in a ‘Leninesque’ pose, striding purposefully forward with his zip undone and his genitals exposed. Putting it politely, if, as they say, good things come in small packages then Brett Murray portrayed Jacob Zuma as a very bad man.
The Africa National Congress sued the Goodman Gallery seeking an order that the painting be taken down. There were demonstrations against the painting and it was vandalised by people who found it offensive. In a country that was under oppressive and institutionally racist rule until just under 20 years ago, the painting has sparked off a debate on race relations, with critics of the painting alleging that it is essentially a racist attack on President Zuma.
On the other hand, defenders of the painting cited the right to free speech and the need for tolerance of differing views and satire in a free and democratic society. Certainly, President Zuma’s openly polygamous (some would say promiscuous) lifestyle does not help shelter him from criticism and attack from this angle and he has been the subject of scathing cartoons and jokes. The free speech advocates say this is as it should be and that President Zuma should simply grow a thicker skin.
The painting was taken down by the Gallery this week after talks with the ANC, but the controversy still rages on. There was a very similar controversy in the United States in 1989 brought about by the exhibition of photographs by the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which had very explicit homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes. The question was whether this was art or pornography masquerading as art. It is interesting that Murray’s controversial painting is very reminiscent of one of Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs titled ‘Man in a Polyester Suit’. So we have been here before.
Freedom of expression is a universally recognised human right. If you think about it, freedom of expression would be absolutely meaningless if it only guaranteed our ability to say or express ourselves about wise, well considered and researched things that everybody else agrees with. What it actually does is guarantee the right to express dissenting, eccentric, silly, obnoxious, ignorant, frivolous or vexatious opinions.
There are a few instances where the law curbs individuals’ freedom of expression such as where: a willfully or negligently published falsehood injures the reputation of another (defamation); it threatens State security (official secrecy); it interferes with some proprietary interest (business confidentiality); or causes somebody to part with or lose personal property (deception or negligent misstatement). So in a purely legal context, Murray’s painting qualifies for protection as free, albeit highly controversial, expression. But we all know that not everything that is legal is right, fitting or appropriate at all times and in all places. Hence although it is not illegal to have your supper while sitting on the toilet, you simply do not do it because it is inappropriate, a health risk and, frankly, disgusting!
This is why I think that whilst Murray was within his rights to express how he really feels about President Zuma, questions have to be asked as to whether this was really right, fitting or socially appropriate.
There is a thin line between satire, intended to provoke serious thought or debate, on the one hand and gratuitous obscenity, intended to insult or belittle. Many think that “The Spear” crossed that line insofar as it was unnecessarily offensive with any artistic or satirical merit gravely outweighed by the demeaning and racially charged portrayal of a man who happens to be an elected head of state.
To paraphrase Voltaire, legally, I would defend Murray’s right to express himself in the way that he chose to in that painting, but morally I would ask him if he really had to do it, just to prove that he could.
Mr Mpanga is an advocate