Don’t censor controversial painting – artists

Khanyi Ndabeni

CENSORING Brett Murray’s controversial painting, The Spear, would take artists’ right back to the apartheid era. That is the opinion of Eastern Cape artists who have come out in full support of Murray.

The painting, which was displayed at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, depicted President Jacob Zuma in a Vladimir Lenin-like pose, with his genitals exposed.

It has caused a storm of controversy after the ANC demanded the gallery take it down and sparked a national debate, particularly on the issue of freedom of expression and the right to dignity.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival director Ismail Mahomed said the struggle for liberation and freedom in South Africa was led significantly through the voices of writers, poets, dancers, musicians, and cultural workers.

“Brett Murray is one of those artists who was as critical about the flaws of the Nationalist government as he remains of the current leadership.

“His integrity as a satirical South African artist is very much intact. The nature and style of his work has been consistent throughout his career,” Mahomed said.

He said it was ironic that Murray had less creative freedom in a society whose constitution promoted such rights than he did under the National Party government.

“The basis of any kind of artwork rests with the way in which it is interpreted. There has hardly ever been any other South African artwork that has taken the debate about freedom of expression from the gallery spaces out into the public arena.

“This kind of debate is healthy for a fledgling democracy in which its citizens are grappling with issues such as freedom of expression, morality, personal and public responsibility. Taking the debate into the law courts is short-sighted. It denies the public the space to engage with the work and with the issues that it inspires,” he said.

“It will be a sad day if we degenerate into a society that destroys its artwork because we disagree with what it represents. How much longer will it take before we become like the Taliban and destroy our public sculptures because we don’t like what they represent?

“How much longer will it be before we begin to burn books?”

Nelson Mandela Bay artist Ayanda Mji said every artist aspired to have his work talked about.

“We cannot judge any artist’s thinking and the way they express themselves. In the painting, Murray is showing us his artistic view of the president. He has the right to do so. Censoring his work means we are not living in a free democratic country anymore,” she said.

Award-winning visual artist Nicholas Hlobo said the painting was a beautiful image that personified Zuma.

“In his painting Brett was able to show how the public view Zuma and how he carries himself in public. He is a man of power, a polygamist and has many children. This is all beautifully put together in art form. What is shown in the portrait is the truth. It will be wrong for the government to shut [up] him or any artists,” he said.

“We are now in a country where we are supposed to express ourselves without any fears from the authorities. Before 1994, artists didn’t have a voice. If we destroy their voice now we are taking the country back to the apartheid days instead of moving forward.”

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University senior fine arts lecturer David Jones said the debate about the painting was a storm in a tea cup and there were more serious things the country could focus on.

Former St Thomas Senior Secondary School art teacher Michael Barry said while artists had the freedom to express themselves through art, that freedom came with responsibility.

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