Yesterday, Goodman Gallery emailed a press release to its huge recipient list, announcing a “joint settlement with [the] ANC.” After closed meetings, conducted in “order to establish common ground and a basis for resolution” in which all parties strove “to strike a balance” between maligned factions “in a spirit of amicability,” the Gallery felt it had maintained its “integrity as a contemporary art space dedicated to freedom of expression and to the voice of dissent.” The (now defaced) Penisgate painting by Brett Murray has come down. And the ANC will no longer sue the hell out of Murray and the Goodman. (Read the backstory by Sean here.)
This purported “amicability” stands in contrast to statements by Ferial Haffajee of the City Press, who openly wrote that her editorial decision to take down the image of the infamous painting on the City Press website was based partly due to “fear” (and that she would “be silly not to admit that”). “Out of care and as an olive branch to play a small role in helping turn around a tough moment, I have decided to take down the image,” Haffajee began, and went on to say that when they first published a review of Murray’s work, featuring “The Spear” as one of the images from his show, she “could not have anticipated that it would snowball into a moment of such absolute rage and pain,” nor how thin “amicability” and respect for the “dignity” of Others remain in South Africa.* Whilst the whole hullabaloo seems to have little to do with race, and more to do with two rights guaranteed by the constitution—one, that South Africa guarantees a person their right to dignity (which Zuma/the ANC claim is threatened by Murray’s painting), and two, that freedom of expression is also protected by the constitution (which Murray/the gallery feel is muzzled, if they could not display the painting)—we all learnt how quickly things can get racialised, especially when there’s an election for which to muster up support.
Zuma has successfully built a presidency playing the victim card repeatedly, and the ANC Youth League and Women’s League have routinely acted as joint ringmasters, creating fireworks and spectacles that distract from pressing daily challenges faced by many (I’ll take a risk and say that it is, in fact, most) who came out in support of Zuma: the absence of service delivery, systematic gender violence, and lack of access to basic education (not to mention corruption, nepotism, cronyism and a general culture that encourages poor governance practices). Lately, however, it looked as though the gig was up for Zuma; but then, along came the Burning Spear. Murray’s painting provided the rallying point around which Zuma and those who stand to gain from his presidency could gather. What a pity that the Women’s League and the Youth League (in support of all their mothers, sisters, friends, wives, and lovers) didn’t march to express outrage about daily physical abuses and material indignities experienced by women in South Africa, rather than the indignities experienced by a caricatured man who has made a career—and a presidency—based on amassing a circus atmosphere around him and his genitalia.
Why all this remarkable ceremony around the royal phallus, a little piece of skin hanging outside the body? Achille Mbeme, in On the Postcolony, reminds us that obsession with “orifices and protuberances” in the postcolony must be understood within the context of two factors: the first is derived from an understanding that those in power (the “commandement”) are marked as having a “taste for lecherous living”; the second from the understanding that the body is the “principal locale of the idioms and fantasies used in depicting power”; the same body that is used to display magnificence and power is the same one that eats, defecates, and ‘misbehaves’ (“Aesthetics of Vulgarity”). Vulgar humour that makes reference to the commandement’s misbehaving body is an expression of the public’s apprehension of that power—and an attempt to take it down a notch. In turn, attempts to shut down the recognition of the “body royale” as a “real” body is also an attempt to construct it as untouchable, powerful, and sacred.
No wonder that Penisgate, like all supernovas in our galaxy, had an ego with a massive gravitational pull. Weeks have been spent considering the unequal amounts of dignity afforded to white or black male genitalia; and how/whether it was racist to continue to disparage black men’s sexuality, even though we all knew that all that the artist was doing was cutting and pasting one set of genitals over another already overexposed and extraordinarily empowered man’s general crotch area. When protests were organized by the ANC, people were bussed in from all parts of the country; in the live report (of the South African newspaper) The Times, we have one member of the public, Sipho Mweli, who reported that he came all the way from Mpumalanga to join the protest in support of Zuma. He hung a cardboard placard around his neck, on which he had handwritten a message to Brett Murray: “Draw your white father naked not our president.” Classic.
Others who pilgrimaged for Zuma’s dignity included Elijah Tauraza, also from Mpumalanga, who noted that the painting was not only undignifying, but also borne of ignorance; he asked, “How do you portray the president exposed when you have not seen him that way, even when he grew up?” Indeed, Murray. Your quick cut and paste job didn’t even give the man his proper due.
And reportedly, the octogenarian photographer, David Goldblatt, along with artist and activist Bongi Dhlomo, bravely volunteered, “of their own volition, to be there when Neil Dundas accepted the memorandum from the ANC at the protest March on Tuesday,” according to the Goodman’s press release. What a show it must have been.
Many other jewels were forged under the pressure of this great distraction, including a rare set of spoof Spears; notable among them is one for Save the Rhinos. It prompted some in the public to ask if this was “a horny white or black rhino” to which others replied, David Attenborough-meets-Apartheid-census-bureaucrat style, “apparently you can tell from the size of its ears, the shape of its mouth, and its preferred foraging grounds”.
And Charl Blignaut’s follow-up article gave us an overview of South African art that “court[ed] controversy and challeng[ed] authority,” and like Murray’s, has “been greeted by violence and…elevated their creators to international fame.” Some of the works are lame, and others are truly nuanced, thought-provoking, and deserving of attention.
One rare moment of true dignity did show up. During last week’s court hearings (yup, the ANC really filed an application in the South Gauteng High Court), Neels Claassen, one of three presiding judges, challenged Gcina Malindi, asking why the lawyer representing the ANC had argued that the artist’s depiction of Zuma was akin to a “colonial attack on the black culture of this country.” Malindi, who had himself been imprisoned in the late 1980s, “broke down in tears, later saying he had been overcome by memories of the apartheid era”; he explained (to the white judge) that “art experts who defended the painting were arguing from the perspective of South Africa’s white, educated elite [and] that in a country divided by education and culture, the court should take into account not just the opinions of a ‘super class’ of art experts, but also the views of the many black South Africans, denied education under apartheid, who are angered and humiliated by the painting’s message.”
Many in the country were schooled, and honestly moved by the power of Malindi’s words; it was hard not to recognise that he was calling for compassion over the many wants of the ‘super class’. His weeping prompted more miles of column space devoted to the sudden recognition of the dignity of the black man. But really? Did a lawyer (who may actually be wasting his considerable intellectual capabilities defending Zuma’s right to dignity) have to have a public and momentary psychic break before we all got that memo about black men’s dignity?
Brett Murray’s argument, “I am not a racist,” was less eloquent.
* We hope Haffajee—in her open letter to Zuma’s daughter—was not designating Angola’s first-daughter-for-life Isabel dos Santos as some kind of role model of “a fine businesswoman” with an “acumen for the entrepreneurial.” In her column defending both the publishing and then removal of the painting from City Press’s website Haffajee added: “This is the nice part of being a first daughter – the access to networks and opportunities that can place you ahead of the pack.”