Let’s get one thing clear. Is ‘The Spear,’ a picture by the South African artist Brett Murray representing South African President Jacob Zuma in heroic revolutionary pose — with his penis hanging out — good art? No. The pose is striking. But the black, red and yellow coloring is derivative, borrowed not only from the Soviets but also a thousand other, better current works — not least a 2008 TIME cover by Shepard Fairey of President Barack Obama. And the organ is incongruous: exposed in inept fashion and gratuitously painted.
But the more worthless the art, you might have thought, the less Zuma would need to worry about it. Not so, apparently. This terrible painting is now the focus of a controversy that has scandalized all South Africa. Why? Because Zuma has demanded it be taken down by the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, which exhibited it, along with pictures of it on the website of the City Press newspaper. His ruling African National Congress (ANC) has even filed a case in the High Court to that effect. In an affidavit served on the paper, Zuma – who, as not a single reporter has failed to point out, has four wives and more than 20 children – added: “The portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests I am a philanderer, a womanizer and one with no respect. It is an undignified depiction of my personality and seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of fellow citizens, family and children.” In a further development on Tuesday, two Zuma supporters – one white, one black – walked into the Goodman Gallery and smeared paint all over The Spear, “ruining” it, before being tackled and led away by a security guard. Meanwhile a second group of painters have unveiled their own picture of five naked white figures – among them opposition leader Helen Zille and murdered far right leader Eugene Terreblanche – being inspected by a black official with a clipboard, a take on a notorious photograph from the early years of white rule in South Africa in which a white official with a clipboard inspects a line of naked black people. This second painting is so awful, its central figures scarcely recognizable, it has the unfortunate effect of improving the first.
Somehow, some really bad, immature art from a South African artist has led, via some really bad, immature reaction from South Africa’s political leadership, to a much-needed debate about censorship, freedom and the thin-skinned vanity of South Africa’s rulers. Because Zuma has form on this score. His government has promulgated a draconian law that would severely curtail press freedom. And he has sued South Africa’s media 11 times for defamation, most famously taking on Zapiro, South Africa’s foremost political cartoonist, who also features in the line-up in the second picture.
As with Murray’s picture, sex seems to particularly wind Zuma up. Zapiro, for instance, attracted the President’s ire by depicting him as raping Lady Justice and by habitually drawing the President with a shower hanging over his head, a reference to Zuma’s testimony in a 2006 case in which he was charged with rape. Zuma was acquitted but in reply to a prosecutor’s question about the woman’s HIV-positive status, Zuma testified he took a shower. He now says he meant that he took a shower after sex, not after exposure to HIV.
There are some quite grown-up lessons to be drawn from the rather juvenile affair of The Spear. First, if South Africa’s President can’t tolerate some poor art at the back of a humdrum Johannesburg exhibition, South Africa’s media should be in no doubt that he aims to curtail their liberties too. Second, South Africa’s racial divide is still so extant, much of the population – and many of its leaders – still see almost everything, even technicolor paintings, in terms of black and white. Third, if the weekly scandals over ANC corruption and ineptitude weren’t reminder enough, South Africa’s rulers have apparently become so used to power after 18 years in government that they have forgotten they are living in a democracy. In a democracy, creating doubt about a politician, pricking his dignity, disrespecting him — even painting bad pictures of him with exposed genitalia — is not just every citizen’s right. As Zuma’s reaction underlines, it’s sometimes their participatory duty.