The Mightier

The Mightier

By Conor Godfrey
Sex, art, and politics.

“The Spear,” a painting of South Africa’s President Zuma with his genitals hanging out of his pants, has all three in spades.

Go ahead…look at it. It is art, after all.

Provocative South African artist Brett Murray painted the work, in his words, as “an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy.”

I enjoy the circus surrounding the painting way more than the painting itself.

First, President Zuma guaranteed every South African in the country saw the painting by suing the artist and the gallery, and demanding it be taken down. (When will rulers learn that censoring any particular piece is the only surefire way to make sure everyone sees it?)

He also propagates the most damaging interpretation of the painting by claiming, in his defamation suit, that the portrait “depicts [him] in a manner that suggests [he is] a philanderer, a womanizer and one with no respect. [That] it is an undignified depiction of [his] personality and seeks to create doubt about [his] personality in the eyes of fellow citizens, family and children.”

Talk about an own goal. You might as well just write and pay for the opposition ads yourself.

The de rigueur charges of racism were of course thrown about as well.

The circus moved into its next phase when two Zuma supporters defaced the painting (Don’t worry, they used oil based washable paints), and another artist painted a response work that depicted 5 recognizable naked white figures (including the leader of the opposition) being inspected by a black South African with a clip board.

I agree with the Times’ blogger Alex Perry that the real take-away here is just how thin-skinned Zuma and his coterie are.

The big chair has a big target on it.

Get over it.

Check out the infamous Obama Joker image.

I understand that many South Africans are rightfully sensitive with regard to slurs on African dignity, but this could have been a total non-issue.

Instead, the whole scene just reinforces all the key points of the anti-Zuma narrative. Womanizing, self-indulgent, overly sensitive big man who is intent on crushing media freedoms.

After all, as the Time’s blog mentions, if Zuma has trouble dealing with one bad portrait in a random art gallery, how can he be trusted to react with poise to more strident criticisms of his personality and policies?

Of course, maybe in Western discourse the never-ending stream of lurid affairs and insinuations has desensitized me to sexuality-laden attacks on political figures.

Watching a few hours of the John Edwards trial makes this painting seem rather trivial, but of course the Edwards trial does not have centuries of racial oppression clouding the nature of insinuations.

The BBC’s Andrew Harding pseudo quotes a former South African Chief Justice as saying the following in regards to “The Spear” circus…. “I know we are too thin-skinned. We should just let it go. But we can’t. You must remember where we have come from.”

That sounds about right.