To paint Jacob Zuma, or not to paint (or deface) him
by Stephan Joubert
The guns are blazing about the controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma by Cape Town artist Brett Murray. This painting, which depicts the President with his genitals exposed, was vandalized on Tuesday, May 22. A man who visited the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg where it is on display, apparently took out a pot of paint and marked an X across the genital area of the portrait, called The Spear.
Amidst all the chaos surrounding this painting, Brett Murray is on record that it was never meant to hurt anyone. What?! Is he kidding us? Non-offensive paintings are sold in Chinese shops. Or at the fund raising events of the local day care center or Kindergarten. But a non-offensive painting of such graphic nature at the Goodman Gallery? No way, mr. Murray. It was meant to provoke, humiliate and shock.
Even worse is the further explanation that this painting is an attempt “at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition and within the broader context of South African discourse.” Humor? Satire? It’s not even dark humor…!
Of course people have the right to free expression. And to criticize public figures. But when art turns into an ideological weapon to degrade a person into an object of ridicule or to shame him or her, it’s a sad day for freedom of expression. It seems as if we have learned from the ancient Romans who knew exactly how to dehumanize people by crucifying them naked. Their public beatings also included stripping people naked beforehand to publicly shame them.
No matter how much we disagree with public figures — to strip them of their humanity is just not on. Likewise, to damage this painting, as two people did, does not rectify the first wrong. What a sad world we live in if our only recourse is to dehumanize others, and in turn, to take revenge on those who started it. An eye for an eye! No wonder Jesus said nobody wins when this is the game-plan. It only forces people into their respective strongholds.