When "Speech Matters"

The protest against "The Spear" - The Zimbabwe Mail
The protest against "The Spear" - The Zimbabwe Mail

“Speech Matters”, the project curated by Katerina Gregos for the last Danish Pavillion at the Venice Biennial, came to mind when during my visit in South Africa I found myself in the midst of the “Spear Gate” - as the media have named the scandal after Brett Murray’s latest solo show at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. “The Spear” is a reenactment of the famous portrait of Lenin, where the artist has substituted the communist leader with the South African president, Jacob Zuma, and focused the punctum of the composition on the bare penis of the latter, instead of recalling the triumphant celebration of the former, signed in 1967 by Victor Ivanov.
“Hail to the Thief II”, this the title of the show, is the second part of a satirical journey by Murray, carried out through the reappropriation of past and present aesthetics used by the ANC (South Africa’s leading political party). The large amount of works produced for the show redundantly affirms the corruption of the political class of contemporary South Africa, fostering the attention on the figure of Zuma, often the target of satirists due to his thoughtless sexual habits. “The Spear”, although being at the cross of two kinds of criticism, has certainly disturbed the majority of the black component of society for its disrespect towards the elder-man that Zuma is. In a country where the vast majority of the voters come from traditionally entrenched contexts, to publicly disrespect an elder-man may be considered more serious than the mismanagement of public affairs.

The writing appeared on the windows of the Goodman Gallery during the protests
The writing appeared on the windows of the Goodman Gallery during the protests

In the European media the news started to propagate when the ANC sued the artist and the gallery, subsequent to the publication of the painting on one of the biggest tabloids in the country, and the light was then shed on the banner of the freedom of expression that the action called upon. The exhibition “Hail to the Thief” gained first position on most Google searches, displacing Radiohead's album, which was originally named after anti-Bush protesters. A pacifist slogan is now turned into the symbol of a struggle among artistic freedom of expression and cultural customs in South Africa. The event, a misunderstanding to many extents, started in the media sphere, bringing light to the wrong work, for the wrong reasons. Many other works from the exhibition would have fostered a debate around corruption in the current government coalition, or perhaps helped the discussion on how far from their premises the representatives of ANC have gone, as politicians and as public figures: let me recall that in 2009, Lulu Xingwana, then Arts and Culture Minister, called the work on the South African lesbian community by Zenele Muholi, now featured in dOCUMENTA (13), ‘pornographic’.

Robert Crumb  When the Niggers take over America,  1993 6 drawings  Ink on paper 52,7 x 45,1 cm Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and  David Zwirner, New York
Robert Crumb, "When the Niggers take over America", 1993, 6 drawings, ink on paper, 52,7 x 45,1 cm, courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York

I think that the work of Brett Murray can easily be paired with the work of Robert Crumb, that Katerina Gregos put on show in the “Speech Matters” exhibition, where the topic of freedom of speech, in western and non western countries, was addressed in a bright and insightful way. Crumb's presence, with his comics, was directly referring to one of the fuses of the whole project, namely the famous satiric comic strips on Mohammed published by the danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten; themselves connected to a growing number of cases showing right-wing populist xenophobic approaches to intercultural social issues. Crumb's work, “When the Niggers Take Over America” (1993), “transgresses social taboos and aims to provide what the artist calls release from the nervous tensions of society”1, understanding how dangerous the prejudice can become when it remains latent and unsaid.

Brett Murray, "The Spear" (Damaged), 2011, acrylic on canvas, unique, 185 x 140cm

That nervous tension in society became apparent in South Africa when two different people attacked the painting, at the peak of the media turmoil. The damaged painting is now a witness of the lack of public debate around the racial issues that still divide the South African society into, black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural. Until this antagonism is profitable for the leading elite who share a concrete political power, these parts will not enjoy a fully democratic sphere where to come to terms with these issues.

What if this misunderstanding that took place, first in the media and then in the streets of South Africa - in what can be considered as not such an interesting work of art - could tell us something about the lack of spaces and words that could break down the distances between the various communities that inhabit the European continent? What if we start to consider a conservative political environment as one where prejudices are kept in a state of dangerous concentrated hate?

  • 1. K. Gregos and H. Just Christoffersen (eds), “Speech Matters”, Mousse publishing, Milan, 2011 (link to the catalog)