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The Spear

Mabulu versus Murray

by Unathi Kondile / 24.05.2012

Firstly, I’d like to thank Brett Murray for his contribution to the arts. Secondly, I wish I could deliver canapés and wine to all the South African households who have had the privilege of entering a gallery from the comfort of their homes, courtesy of our media’s walkabouts therein. Thirdly, I’d like to talk about the state of the Art, in South Africa, as well as the neglected role of township / black artists in post-apartheid South Africa.

Let’s just rewind to 2010. An artist named Ayanda Mabulu. Pause. I thought this was a pseudonym at first, because this name and surname combo means “Afrikaners are expanding!” You have to love the irony of naming in Africa. Anyway, Ayanda Mabulu produces a piece titled “Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi” (better a fool than a rich man’s nonsense, loosely translated). It’s exhibited at Worldart Gallery towards the end of 2010.

Without going into too much detail about the work (above), I’m sure we can see President Jacob Zuma’s manhood in crutches and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s manhood tied up as if it’s injured. Mabulu explained these representations as metaphors – the crutches on the president’s manhood indicate overuse and that it needs crutches to get by. Tutu’s tied up manhood alludes to how weakened the Archbishop has become, he is “incapacitated and ‘colonised’ by Western values – in pain, just like during initiation [circumcision].”

I would imagine such prominent penises would cause an outcry of bellowing proportions. But alas, calm prevailed, largely because this work remained in the elitist confines of the art world. Protected from the underdeveloped minds of those that aren’t acquainted to fine art. Protected from uncouth admirers who would gobble this up all too literally. Safe. ‘Outsiders’ could not access it and the media couldn’t give a toss about what some black artist had done.

Forward to today. Brett Murray produces The Spear which depicts the president of South Africa in a Lenin-like stance with his manhood dangling below. The City Press newspaper picks this spear up and runs with it. And boy do they run with it. The editor is beyond herself with bewilderment of selling papers to an art consuming market. She can’t wait. All those art connoisseurs buying her paper. Praise Murray! A few days later the ANC is up in arms about this depiction of the president. They’re even up in arms with the City Press, which gave a hand in the distribution… The rest is history, as they say. As all of this is relegated to the country’s latest frenzy – outcry on social media and only one or two iconoclastically inclined vandals are bold enough to do something about the work.

Question is: Why was there no outcry over Ayanda Mabulu’s depiction of president Zuma?

Yes, Brett Murray is a renowned artist (within his own or art circles), but not to the overwhelming majority that is against his work. Who he is is irrelevant to this outcry. So, why was there no outrage around Mabulu’s work? The answer to this is much more complex than because he is a black artist or it’s politics. The answer to this could tear South Africa’s art farce to pieces. Shred it. But today I do not feel like tearing anything. So I’ll be gentle. If we look at the current crop of black South African artists that are going places or have made it you will largely notice that their work revolves around identity: blackness and sexuality to be precise. Nothing else.

Whereas if you look at their white counterparts, who went to the same art institutions – they have the leisure of placing a box of Omo next to a box of Joko and calling that Joko Omo (Yoko Ono) in an art gallery. And praise prevails. If a black artist were to attempt to display such it would be ignored, laughed off as imbecility and not art. Only white artists are capable of conceptual art production. Blacks have to stick to the obvious “speak about yourself in your work! Tell us how lesbian you are, how black you feel, etcetera. Only.”

I could go on. But to keep this short, the reason Ayanda Mabulu’s artwork didn’t cause ripples is because as far as art is concerned a black artist is intellectually incapable of producing a complex work – blacks are incapable of satire – until they are verified by their white counterparts. No conceptualism, surrealism, avant-gardism, post-modernism or post-postmodernism in black art. Keep it simple. Black stories must always be kept straightforward so as to not confuse the white reader.

It is only when the African story is told through the white lens that newspapers and the general public will pay attention. There are so many black artists in this country producing artworks that are screaming to be heard. Producing artworks about township life, poverty, inequality and how government has failed them. But I am afraid, until the overwhelmingly white curators, educators and narrators of art decide that such work is also art, we will only see the Mabulus when said white curator and white art educators are trying to defend their Brett Murrays. Suddenly we hear, “but Ayanda Mabulu did it too!” oh, so all along you knew about Mabulu’s work but failed to heap it with praise like you do to the Murrays? Okay.

So once again, I would like to thank Brett Murray for his artwork that has put art on the media map once again. The lack of media attention to Fine Art is a disgrace in this country. Considering we have a long history of resistance art that contributed to the liberation of this country too.

Today, more than ever, I feel that art can be flung out of those white cube spaces such as the Goodman Gallery and into public discourse, much like The Spear has been thrown around – so that it challenges the public and stimulates this kind of debate. Art must and can challenge service delivery in this country. It can challenge corruption, even. But the problem is that no one will pay attention to such art when it comes from black artists and if it comes from a white artist it will be dismissed as racism or black contempt easily.

I am hoping that all of this will cast light on the plight of black artists who are not allowed, by artistic norms and art education to express themselves beyond my-identity-this-my-identity-that.

Fine Art, like many other spears spheres of the Arts plays a fundamental role in the development of a society.

I trust that the media will keep its ear on the Fine Art ground from here onwards. There are stories there.

*View Unathi Kondile’s blog here.

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RESPONSES (30)
  1. Jason says:

    The ANC caused the uproar. Quite possibly to get the attention off all the other cock-ups. Mdluli, Mmemezi, Maharaj…

    What of the other pieces in the exhibition?

    Cheap politicking by a desperate government. Old Murray probably didn’t think he’d get so much flak while mouse-clicking this little pearler on his laptop. Bad art suddenly became a handy distraction from the bigger issues we all face. What’s more appalling (and telling) is the boggling amount of shit spewed by columnists of all colours.

    Disgruntled, outraged blacks, mealy-mouthed, quivering whites: we’re all being played.

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  2. Respondent says:

    The ANC didn’t cause the uproar Jason. It took the ANC four days to actually pay attention to this well-orchestrated news agenda setting theme. As much as the ANC is filled with villians of all sorts we’re giving it too much credit if we think it caused the uproar.

    Ever since Julius Malema faded we have seen a scramble for new news by our media houses.

    Without even going as far as politics, let’s first stop and take a look at how the media really ensured extra-mileage for this story.

    So, as I said, it took the ANC four days to respond to this artwork and that response was a direct result of the pressure the City Press and other Media24 titles, together with social media exerted.

    Why did the media work so hard on pushing Murray’s artwork to top the agenda? Why didn’t they do they same for Mabulu’s?

    The answer to these questions will also make it very clear who sets national discourse. It is the media. Not politicians. You think, react and speak according to what the media decides for you. They’re tired of Mdluli, so they’ll dish you something else to chew on whilst they dig up something else.

    The City Press worked very hard on this one. Why do you think the ANC is now after the City Press instructing its members not to buy the paper? No, folks, if anyone is playing anyone here it’s the media via it’s “Finding the Next Malema” excursion.

    p.s.: It’s great that art can once again stimulate debate – it too has potential to go against the ANC’s ills – but we need to level the playing field so that black and white artists can be heard equally as they take on authority.

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  3. Point Blank says:

    Ag no man, not another “because I am black” write up surely? There are highly revered black artists in this country who’s paintings and sculptures have been and are sought across the globe..

    What an insult to those artists.

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  4. Bass_Player says:

    They tooooook our jewwwwwwbs!

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  5. cnut says:

    Ayanda creates art that resembles the meanderings of a blind warthog on tik. Brett is a much more credible and innovative artist. I fail to see why these two artists are compared to each other.

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  6. tim says:

    @CNUT
    I DUNNO MAYBE ITS BECAUSE BOTH PAINTINGS HAVE BEEN BROUGHT UP IN COMPARISON OF SUBJECT MATTER, IN LIGHT OF A CONTROVERSIAL PAINTING CALLED ‘THE SPEAR’ BEING 1, ASKED TO BE BANNED AND 2, DEFACED AND VANDALISED.

    did you read this article?

    wait.

    do you even read the news?

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  7. tim says:

    ignorant asshole.

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  8. Karen says:

    Maybe it’s because Zuma has been that much more of an embarrassment to this country since Ayanda’s painting in 2010. It was easier then to ignore the fool and not feel any inclination to ridicule him. When something becomes so ridiculous, all one can do is laugh. I think it is pathetic in this day and age for a black man such as yourself to still blame white people. If you don’t like the circles that you find yourself in, show Dem-make the circle bigger. Stop being so pathetic.

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  9. Maxi Me says:

    Ignoring Ayanda’s painting entirely (again), the City Press has been at the forefront of exposing many of the ANCs most corrupt activities so ANC has always been looking for a reason to get back at them without looking like they’re defending corruption. Enter the spear…

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  10. Anonymous says:

    Well written piece, and I agree with so much of it. But…(isn’t there always) I don’t think you should blame the “white curators, educators and narrators of art”, or the newspapers or the public (mostly white) who respond…I think you should blame the public who don’t respond (the majority, black public). And I don’t mean “blame” in a horrible way, because that majority maybe doesn’t have a lot of time for art & satire, they’re too busy trying to put food on the table. But we MUST get those people into the public arena, they must become part of “the public” too, so that what you describe doesn’t happen. Black people are overwhelmingly in the majority in this country – if they all keep their ear on the Fine Art ground from here onwards, and buy newspapers and speak out…don’t you think the discourse would start to sound different? But you can’t really ask white people to keep quiet about what touches them. Rather ask black people to please please please speak up!

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  11. Margeaux says:

    I drew a picture too, it also got ignored:(

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  12. Dawg says:

    FFS, if there is such a huge market for black art and all the black people want to see why does some enterprising black person open a fucking gallery and tap into it. Honestly this wailing about the unfair world makes me want to kick youe arse hard enough for your eyes to open. Grow a pair and open a gallery you knob.

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  13. Pablo says:

    I agree with anonymous, you can´t make white people responsable if in certain areas black people do not participate. Don´t you find it sad that the most succesful black painters or for instance black writers are supported mainly by whites and not blacks? The problem is that when you ask the question of why there is no more participation of black people for instance in the arts, though there are economical and other factors, the main issue that no one wants to say is the culture factor. Take soccer for instance, after crying for opportunities and give people the chance to enjoy and develop it, now after all billions spent we end up with empty stadiums, where is the black support in something that it should be naturally appreciated by them?

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  14. nomnoms says:

    Cnut – Are you serious? How innovative is Murray who traces an image of Lenin and sticks a picture of Zuma’s head on it (Am curious though whos privates he copied). It has the quality of a matric art students graphic design exam project.. But with the maturity of a primary school child upset with his teacher for punishing him. Mabuli’s work at least shows imagination and talent and a proper comment on current politics (I love it!).

    Sad day indeed when it takes the presidents privates to finally get South Africans into a gallery (is that because our art can be so bad, or curators can be so boring – or that we are just culturally lazy in this country) and SA art so much international coverage – worse day that the government gets so upset about a painting and nothing else REAL that happens in this country on a daily basis.

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  15. paintings says:

    ayanda mabulu versus brett murray.

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  16. vnctplsn says:

    I think that Ayanda had been offered to exhibit at the ABSA gallery in 2010, and when presented with the paintings they had refused to exhibit them.

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  17. Judith Mason says:

    I enjoyed the article. Sadly, though, this fuss, getting more ugly by the hour, is about presenting the President as victim, and garnering him huge support before the Conference in December. Great politics but reprehensible behaviour, and my life long support for the ANC is no more. The President is ‘hurt’ by this portrayal, but not more hurt, surely, than citizens were, watching him singing Mshini Wam to baying supporters outside the court when his rape trial was on.For her own protection the young woman who brought the case against him had to leave the country . Now people are being encouraged to boycott newspapers. I am old enough to remember the grief and dismay that attended the banning of “The World” when the feisty Percy Qoboza edited it. Shame on you, ANC.The sacrifice of life and liberty by the struggle generation is not honoured by opportunistic rabble rousing.

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  18. Taryn Cohn says:

    Thanks Judith for the insightful comments.
    I think that the whole country has fallen prey to a political agenda once again- and its no suprise that racism is again blamed-. its our fallback option in this country. Its sure to stir up a storm when one side or another needs to control the moral high ground.

    Whites do it, blacks do it. – its easier to created a furore than to engage in some self-examination. And that goes for all of us.
    This is certainly not the first depiction of a South African president- nor is it the first depiction of nudity. And as the article shows, not the first depiction of a semi-naked president.

    It’s however the first time (to my knowledge) that the FPB has been called in to classify an artwork (on the basis of nudity- because the cannot classify it on any other basis!)

    What is the saddest thing for me to see is how quickly people who are in a position to influence thousands of others call for violence, agression and even death in each an every circumstance of offence as the FIRST action.
    Look at the DA/COSATU March.

    Wansn’t it the same ANC who only took up arms via MK only when ALLLLLLLLL other options had been exhausted?

    Our country objects to Murrays use of the imagery of (soviet) revolution. But this is an unsuprising reaction to our political rhetoric of Revolution and War- we are inuandated with political leaders talking of “defeating you” and revolutionary houses”.
    Why are we still comrades and not colleagues?
    Why are our leader still using the language of REVOLUTION and WAR?
    What WAR? What revolution?

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  19. seeweed says:

    Where can I get a print of The Spear? It would make a lovely companion piece next to my Tretchi Chinese Girl.

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  20. Anonymous says:

    Poorly written and poorly argued. Maybe get Judith Mason writing for you Mahala….

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  21. Anonymous says:

    seeweed – I’m sure they’ll be available soon on a street-corner near you…

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  22. A-nun-eMouse says:

    Great piece of writing! Pity it is wasted on the types of people who have added their comments here. We need more of this kind of writing – that shows thought, insight whilst being playful

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  23. Does it matter. says:

    Black and white; like a colourless television.

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  24. Mariapaola says:

    Very interesting article, and what hype around one man”s penis! We all pretend we are happily holding hands under our beautiful rainbow, while singing the theme song to the Brady Bunch…and it is all rubbish. The branding of this country simply does not show the realities and at any opportunity possible people will protest to show this…I agree with you in that it should be in the artworld that this debate and argument is stimulated and for that Brett Murray has done a great job.. intentionally or unintentionally. Why did Ayanda’s work fall under the radar? you have opened my mind to a perspective I have not heard before about the white artist vs the black artist in this country. Sadly as I think about it you may be right, but I hope you are wrong! Art should stand separate from society and race..but in South Africa no one and nothing has that luxury!!!

    Thanks for the article!!!

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  25. Ryan says:

    Could it also be that Brett Murray has been around for exactly 20 years longer as an artist than Ayanda Mabulu? Usually older artists are far more well known than the younger ones. And I’m sure that from all this hype about The Spear with reference to Ayanda Mabulu’s work, Ayanda will become more and more recognised. Also, once the South Africans are better educated, there will also be an increased appreciation for fine art, especially from black audiences. Under educated people selrom show hightened interest in fine arts. But hopefully this will change and previously disadvantaged South Africans will grow to fully support the arts in general.

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  26. Msengi Chinoyi says:

    “To like an individual because he’s black is just as insulting as to dislike him because he isn’t white.” E E. Cummings . . . American Poet/Author/Painter , , , who cares if he was Black or White . . . or Mabulu and Murray.

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  27. HE says:

    But no-one is talking about WHY the picture of a penis in the first place. What is the artist saying? There is a lot of conjecture that it is about Zuma’s sexuality, but for me it’s not clear what he is saying about it and if a Soviet picture is even a clear and convincing picture for doing so – seems like a cheap shot if you ask me and very clumsy, churlish and superficial “metaphor”.

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  28. Will says:

    You of course do realize that Ayanda Mabulu’s work was published and reviewed in the Cape Times of 8 Nov 2010?
    Here, let me do your research for you… see link below.

    http://worldart.co.za/uploads/media/CT%20review8Nov2010.pdf

    So as far as I am concerned, the media gave the different artists the exact same coverage (review), in fact Ayanda’s review was more than half a page long. So where the hell do you get off saying the media didn’t give the black artist the same attention. Please learn the facts before spewing your ‘woe is me for I am black” drivel.

    The difference here is not the media’s coverage, but the ANC ‘outrage’ over Brett Murray showing Zuma with genitals exposed… yet they fail to give Ayanda Mabulu’s art the same ‘outrage’… double standards from the ANC not the media. The media was covering the ANC’s ‘disgust and horror’ of Murray’s art not the artwork itself.

    This ‘outrage’ was a political move to garner support for Jacob Zuma ahead of Manguang, nothing more, nothing less (in my humble opinion).

    And to the other chop who commented on the media being the one to blow this issue out of proportion… O please! In the days between City Press running the review (Sunday) and the day the ANC was ‘horrified’ (Thursday), there was no coverage of the painting. In fact the ANC only got to know of the exhibit after a reporter asked them to comment on the exhibition. So try another one. The media only started covering the Spear after the Thursday. What is it with people and their convenient ignorance of the facts… Geez!

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  29. mieliepap says:

    Well,firstly – Mabulu is a self taught ‘outsider’ artist.The painting was shown in a little known,out of the way gallery ‘Worldart’ in Cape Town.It did get pretty good coverage in the Cape Times..as someone above has already mentioned.There is some confusion as to whether the so-called Zuma figure is in fact Zuma.The painting is not very well painted and the message is somewhat uncertain.

    Murray is an ‘educated’ artist who has always chased the limelight – is very well connected in the art world and seems to think that ‘clever’ political satirical art is a cut above the rest,and a sure way to get your name in highlights(seems he was right).The painting was shown in one of the most renouned galleries in SA – The Goodman Gallery in JHB..which is where the ANC has its nationsl headquarters.This painting is also not very well painted and the message is also somewhat unclear.There is no confusion,however,that the figure is certainly meant to be Zuma.This gave the ANC something to stink about.

    Ironically,the ‘defaced/dismembered’ painting hits home harder than it did before the well documented touch-ups. Zuma now looks like the sinister,deranged,blind and out of control monster he has revealed himself to be while occupying this country’s highest office.

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  30. Oliver says:

    @nomnoms

    The point of the painting is not originality – unless you are actually at school or 5. Then you can draw an apple-house on a stick and call it original and your teacher will give you a reasonable score or your mom will put it on the fridge with a magnet.

    Useful art and communication tap into rich symbols in society. And in order to reference them accurately you must sort of copy them. Writing uses boring old words that are constantly copied and recopied. Does that mean there is no original writing? ANC folks use original pronunciation so maybe you can make the argument.

    ANC folks struggle with this though. (But I don’t think they mind because they like struggles, they always talk about a struggle). In this picture they only seem to see penis and racism. Racism they also like but I think where the rest of the world links racism to race inequality they say it’s when black people are offended.

    By the way, does anyone know whether I can take legal action if someone calls me a racist. I think it’s a dreadful thing to be and the other day I was called a racist because I said I like The Spear. If racism is so wrong and racist are so horrible – surely being called a racist violates my right to dignity Especially if I’m not really racist.

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