If you live in a country where to insult the President is a criminal offence, you cannot but stand in awe when you wake up one morning to images on the internet of Jacob Zuma, the President from across the pond, depicted in Lenin’s striking heroic pose with his genitals exposed. Humorous, shocking and offensive, the painting does precisely what its creator intended it to do – it provokes.
The painting by Brett Murray is entitled The Spear. This ‘work of art’ is a happy victim of the Streisand effect – it has been obscure since 2010 when Murray painted it but shot to stardom just a few days ago when the ANC’s public condemnation of the painting unwittingly brought widespread local, regional and international attention to it.
Sundry digs have been taken at the painting, from references to it hanging limply to questions about the piece’s main thrust. When analyzed carefully, however, the painting may actually be more than a trivial abuse of artistic licence. Curiously, there is no spear in the painting. A somewhat simplistic view might suggest that this is a phallic reference but a more convincing interpretation advanced by some critics is that the work’s title can be read as a knowing reach-back to the ANC’s armed wing during the apartheid era, Umkonto weSizwe, The Spear of the Nation. One could go further and suggest that the absence of a spear is an attempt to contend that the ANC as led by Zuma is no longer the spear of the nation. What might also come to mind is the famous illustration of Barack Obama in the Hope portrait, painted by Shepard Fairey in 2008 – is there any hope for Zuma’s South Africa or has his presidency been overshadowed by his ill-conceived domestic policy and sexual indiscretions in his personal life? Most noticeably, the painting draws from historical images of the late Soviet ruler, Vladimir Lenin – an apparent reference by Murray to Zuma’s socialism-in-miniature policies.
Trvial? Distasteful? A crude stereotype of African male sexuality? Culturally chauvinistic?
The painting may be all or none of these things yet one thing is certain: it calls for African men to carry out some serious introspection about their sexuality and the manner in which they treat women. While polygamy is acceptable in various African cultures, it is not a licence for men to treat women as they please. Zuma has treated women as disposable and replaceable. He has four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women. Zuma was also charged in 2005 with raping a struggle comrade’s daughter, but was later acquitted. He is hardly a role-model for young African men in a country and continent where HIV and AIDS are endemic. Zuma should not cry foul when society, whether through art, satire or in general conversation, point this out.
“As usual, the spear had no protection”, one satirical commentator jabbed.
What requires the most protection, is the right of citizens to express themselves freely, through art or otherwise, in criticism of conduct they find demeaning or unacceptable and policies they feel should be changed.
If for this reason alone, The Spear should stay up.