An Explanation by Brett Murray

by Jun 9, 2012All Articles

Artist Brett Murray, in his affidavit, explains why he painted ‘The Spear’
“At the outset, I would like to say that I am a proud South African and a former supporter of the ANC. I am not a racist. I do not produce art with an intention to hurt, humiliate or insult, and that includes the painting that has caused this controversy.
I emphatically deny that any such intention motivated the painting or exhibiting of The Spear. This will be borne out by my explanation as to the background and context of my work. The Spear has a dual purpose: it is a work of protest or resistance art, and it is a satirical piece.
I would like to explain my history to give a context to my work.
I was born in South Africa and raised, in the 1970s and 1980s, in a society that was perverted, controlled by corrupt, morally bereft politicians who treated South Africa – my country – as a personal fiefdom of their racist elite. To preserve their position of illegitimate power, tactics of intimidation, coercion, violence, manipulation, and misuse of intelligence and police forces, were the norm.
Censorship prevailed and freedom of expression was severely curtailed. White men, such as me, were conscripted into the army to take up arms against fellow South Africans, to fight a war we did not believe in against enemies that we considered to be friends.
I [therefore], in order to avoid conscription, studied for 10 years, and thereafter went into self-imposed exile in London until the ANC was unbanned and I returned to South Africa.
While I was studying, I was involved in anti-apartheid activities in the trade union movement, church groups, youth groups, and the End Conscription Campaign. As an artist, I produced and designed banners, posters, stickers, protest worker diaries and the like in support of the struggle.
It was growing up in this apartheid society that caused me, from an early age, to think about issues of power, race, politics, patriarchy, oppression and the manipulation of the media.
Indeed, these themes have by and large prevailed through my work as an artist over many years.
When I studied for my master’s in fine arts, I reflected satirically on the apartheid regime. The works consisted of satirical figures describing policemen with dynamite in their ears, pigs as soldiers.
Like many other South Africans, I embraced the dawn of a new South Africa. I was teaching art at Stellenbosch University in 1994 when South Africa’s first democratic election was held and, as a supporter of the ANC, I proudly cast my ballot on April 27 1994.
That day signified hope, freedom, an end to tyranny and the dawn of a new era for me, my countrymen and the whole world. South Africa moved from being a pariah state to being the proudest nation in the world.
As our democracy developed, cracks began to show in the way that the ruling elite was implementing the ideals of the Freedom Charter and our constitution. From my perspective as an artist I felt a sense of betrayal, where heroes of the struggle now appeared to be corrupt, power-hungry and greedy, or where ideals that many had died or made sacrifices for were abandoned on the altar of expedience.
Over the past few years one ongoing narrative in our society has been the story of the first applicant [President Jacob Zuma]. For instance, in a judgment implicating the first applicant, a court found that the first applicant was closely linked to his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who was found guilty of corruption. Another controversial feature of the first applicant’s public life was the failure by the prosecuting authorities to proceed with corruption charges against him, notwithstanding the apparent existence of evidence to sustain such charges.
Details of the first applicant’s sex life have been well documented in the public domain. Notwithstanding the fact that he has four wives, he has engaged in extra-marital sex on at least two occasions.
For me, satire is critical entertainment. While I might be attacking and ridiculing specific targets, what I am actually doing is articulating my vision of an ideal world in which I want to live . In this instance, that preferred ideal in the South African context is the Freedom Charter.
What satire can do in a political context is that it can be seen as a political contestation as it opens political debate.
The resulting debate that has surrounded this work is in itself evidence that this does happen and that artwork can provoke these debates, however unsettling they might be.
There is therefore no reason for artists to be censored, however uncomfortable this might be for individuals and for society at large.
For me, The Spear has a far broader meaning than some of the public discourse on its meaning, including the first applicant’s interpretation. It is a metaphor for power, greed and patriarchy.”
What is the artwork by Brett Murray called The Spear actually saying? For all those with a shallow or stunted visual literacy, Panga Management is not here to judge (not yet anyway) PM is here to help.
The artwork, its style, colour and visual familiarity- reference a political propaganda poster that depicted Lenin. Vladimir Lenin was a Russian political leader. Leninism – the communist principles and policies advocated by said man. Instead of depicting Lenin, Murray interchanged his image with a depiction of Jacob Zuma. Zuma stands tall purveying the distance/looking around. He cuts an iconic, PM would even say, monumental figure. We the viewer look at him from below as is evident by the angle of his chin. Yes, we the viewer look up to this man, which makes sense being that he is the president of South Africa. The Jacob Zuma figure seems to be caught in mid-motion with his arms out, like he has been startled or he is about to fall. In the image Zuma wears a jacket and a shirt, but his pants are not in view. The image depicts a man- Jacob Zuma – startled, with his pants down. Being caught with ones pants down, is a common enough metaphor used to describe somebody who has been caught doing something they should not be doing.
In Jacob Zuma’s case one could read the image literally, as Zuma and his, shall we call it “way with women”, has seen him in some very compromised positions. For the sake of rigour, let’s also read the pants down situation metaphorically, and do so in relation to the principals of Leninism or a Russian political poster of that era. Has Jacob Zuma been caught acting hypocritically or in contrast with the principles of Leninism? What the work ultimately seems to be stating/questioning in a very simple way, is that Zuma has been caught being a hypocrite. The title The Spear does not only reference the penis; The Spear can also refer to the sharp point of a situation. The direction the spear points, is the direction one is moving in. When one reads this work in relation to the exhibition as a whole, it is just one, amongst many works that utilise the language of satire to question the current ANC’s hypocrisy on certain issues, and lack of action on others. So what’s the big deal?
Journalists, political commentators and people on the street question the ANC. Even members of the ANC with high-up positions in government question and challenge the ANC. And they do so about these very same issues. All that Brett Murray has done is his job. He has communicated these questions, in a succinct visual format. It’s the purpose of satirical artists like Brett Murray to be the grain of sand in somebody’s spiritual spinach. So what is the real problem here? Why threaten violence and law suits over an artwork! For Fucks sake, if you think an artwork is so powerful that you have to respond with death threats and law suits, maybe you should consider learning how to read artworks! Yes, PM would suggest a solid helping or force feeding of visual literacy, would go a long way round these parts. The ANC seem to have the same fear the Nats had of the penis, and they were the biggest dickheads on the planet.
Is it a good artwork? Well “good” is a relative term. No, it’s not Brett Murray’s most sophisticated artwork. Then again propaganda and satirical posters are not sophisticated. They are didactic and direct and that’s why they are effective. Has it been effective? Well it certainly has ripped the scab off historical, economic and social wounds that have been festering with no end in sight. Wounds that the current ANC leadership have done nothing to rectify, cleanse or mitigate in any way, with their poor service delivery, corruption and fickle leadership. Nation building has not been high on the agenda that’s for sure.
So the bottom line is- like the artwork or not, Brett Murray has the freedom under South Africa current constitution to paint a picture of the president with his pants down, penis exposed. Good artwork or not, it has been effective- it has done its job. Another thing it has done is highlight that South Africa is a very immature democracy, where many people argue their points aggressively with racist tone and sentiment or callous conservative stupidity.
Back to the penis. PM has some questions. Why did Brett Murray not paint a small penis on the president? After all small penises, for some ridiculous reason, are still viewed as inferior. If Murray had painted the penis small he would have been depicting the president as an inferior man, yes? Yet he did not. Why did Murray not paint the penis erect? An erect penis would have symbolised action, yes? Yet he did not. The penis depicted in the artwork is objectively scaled and flaccid, which leads PM back to the above reading. Brett Murray did not ridicule the president by painting his penis exposed; he simply depicted him caught with his pants down. A simple yet clearly effective metaphor for his political life.
As for all you tedious conservatives, outraged by the depiction of a penis, fuck you! PM thinks you should all get together, and petition to have the penis on Michelangelo’s sculpture of David- covered with a fig leaf. For fucks sake people, it’s just a fucking penis. Most of us have one, and the rest of us will see one at some point in our lives.
Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla 92