May 30, 2012


A depiction of President Jacob Zuma nude is promoting a discussion centred around racism and artful expression. We consider the arguments.

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Racism or artful expression? Discussing Jacob Zuma’s nude mural

Racism or artful expression? Discussing Jacob Zuma’s nude mural

South African artist Brett Murray has depicted his country’s President Jacob Zuma in Leninesque pose, his gaze directed to some distant horizon, right hand reaching forward and his genitalia hanging out, in an artwork 1.85m high entitled ‘The Spear’, part of Murray’s ‘Hail to the Thief II’ exhibition.

The image, featured above with ‘The Spear’ cropped out – for modesty’s sake -, has caused quite a stir.

In Canada artist Maggie Sutherland has recently portrayed her country’s leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, lounging naked on a chaise longue, similarly with his penis displayed for all to see, in a work called ‘Emperor Haute Couture’.

Two countries, two leaders, two works of art (depending on your point of view) along the same theme, and two very different reactions.

The nude mural of President Jacob Zuma: does it play to racial stereotypes?

In South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) has taken legal action to have ‘The Spear’ taken down from the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe said of the artwork that “it’s rude, it’s crude, it’s disrespectful”. President Zuma is reported to have “felt personally offended and violated”.

Some commentators have argued that Murray’s portrait plays up to crude racial stereotypes of African male sexuality and in short, is racist.

Gwede Mantashe stated that as far ‘as many people were concerned black people were just objects’ (The Guardian, 22 May) and that “it’s crude… we have not outgrown racism in our 18 years [of democracy]”.

“If it had been a white man depicted, the reaction would have been different”, said Mantashe. It is also perhaps true that if the artist, Brett Murray, hadn’t been a white man from Pretoria the reaction might also have been different.

President Jacob Zuma nude: creativity and responsibility

Poet and writer Wally Serote said that “Blacks feel humiliated” and declared that “creative people” have “a responsibility to see that our work contributes to building a new South Africa, free from prejudice”.

Outside the court ANC activists carried placards, one reading, “Say no to artistic expression!”

The Emperor’s Clothes

Meanwhile, in Canada, or more specifically Kingston, Ontario, Maggie Sutherland’s caricature of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Murray lying naked and surrounded by fawning politicians, has caused a slight outburst of righteous indignation, quite a bit of comment and debate, and not a few ribald comments: but the artwork itself remains well hung (sorry, couldn’t resist it) in its gallery.

Stephen Harper’s spokesman made light of it in a tweet, merely pointing out that the painting shows the prime minister next to a dog when in fact he is a “cat man”. From Prime Minister Harper there has been no comment.

Jacob Zuma nude: impugning the President’s dignity

President Zuma, in a legal affidavit, said that: “The continued display of the portrait is manifestly serious and has the effect of impugning my dignity”. He continued, “The portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests that I am a philanderer, a womanizer and one with no respect”.

Jacob Zuma is undeniably a polygamist. He has been married six times and has four living wives. He has 20 children and in 2011 he publicly apologized for fathering one child out of wedlock. Prior to that he was cleared of raping an HIV-positive woman, stating during the trial that he had taken a shower after having sex with her (presumably to protect himself against HIV infection).

President Zuma is a public figure. He is not just an ordinary African. He has a reputation which he surely cannot deny. He has, it could be argued, played to the stereotype of the Alpha-male Zulu leader. And a cloud of accusations of corruption and wrong-doing swirl about his administration.

“Creative people” may have a duty to show responsibility in the messages they deliver and the images they portray or reflect but it is certain that politicians have such a duty. President Zuma has in some measure failed in that duty.

Freedom of expression

There is a limit to freedom if it is to be indulged in responsibly but neither the Zuma nor the Harper portraits breach that limit.

Of concern to the Kenya Forum is that rather than just trying to defend his reputation, Jacob Zuma and some ANC activists are trying tostifle free speech, artistic expression and political criticism.

In the late 1970’s the punk rock band, the Sex Pistols, released an album entitled ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Its cover carried an image of Queen Elizabeth II and one track on the album bears the line “God save the Queen, the fascist regime”. Her majesty is currently celebrating 60 years on the throne (which did not topple because of adverse creative artistic expression).

Later the Sex Pistols released an album entitled ‘Never mind the bollocks’. President Zuma and his ANC advisors should keep the title in mind and cool it.


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