There has been something that has been bugging me this past week. It all began when I was flipping channels hoping to find something worth watching on the tele. In this attempt I stumbled onto CNN, on the screen appeared some very angry chaps. They were raising fists in the air, slicing their throats with their fingers, screaming into the camera and promising to kill the white man who so happened to have done something to President Jacob Zuma. So there I was at my curious best trying to find out what was the genesis of this entire drama. Then like always I eventually went to my trusted friend Google. And what I found, ABOMINATION!
The fuss was being created out of a painting called The Spear. It is a painting of South African President Jacob Zuma which has a striking resemblance to Victor Ivanov’s Lenin lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live. The difference is that the head is Zuma’s and it also despicably shows his private parts. This gesture is what has led to the painter, Brett Murray to instant notoriety among the black community in South Africa. This painting has added another dent into South Africa’s polarised society even if the country desperately tries to sell itself to the rest of the world as a Rainbow Nation. Many have accused this painting which was eventually defaced and vandalised as a racist act. The ANC has even taken the matter to court for defamation of character against Jacob Zuma.
The painter Brett Murray has defended his painting as freedom of expression. He was stretching his imagination to show the many flaws in the government that was supposed to make a difference. According to his interpretation the painting had nothing to do with race rather he was trying to show corruption, greed and patriarchy in society. However, Zuma’s private part’s show this I still wonder. The instant I saw this disturbing picture the first thought to come to my mind was that the painter will definitely plead freedom of expression. To some degree Murray may have a case for freedom of expression but the question then is was it culturally right and does Zuma bear part of the blame?
President Jacob Zuma has not been known to command high esteem in the manner that his predecessors have done, namely Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. The latter has almost reached god-like status revered all around the world. Zuma’s bedroom dirty laundry has definitely been exposed for everyone to see. He is polygamous, infamous for a statement he made during a rape trial that after having unprotected sex he took a shower to prevent the risk of contracting HIV, he impregnated his friend’s daughter and he only recently married another wife. Clearly this is not the kind of headlines you would expect a president to be famous for. People want to read headlines of how the president has tackled poverty, dealt with corruption, and created more jobs not who the president is taking to bed. Hence, if I choose to play devil’s advocate maybe I can understand an inch of Murray’s frame of mind at the time of conceiving the painting.
Nonetheless, I still believe that he stretched the elastic of freedom of expression too far and it snapped. I am sure that there are many ways in which he could have used his creativity to get his message across without being disrespectful. In our African culture it is clearly the utmost insult and dishonour to portray our elders in such a manner. It is almost unthinkable. Regardless of what your elder’s action it is still culturally incorrect to disrespect them. The painting cleared stripped Zuma of his dignity and laid it paid for the world to see. I can therefore understand the anger that the black community in South Africa has.
Zambia is definitely miles away from being as bold as Brett Murray was in their freedom of expression. I am certain Mr. Murray would have been locked up in Chimbokaila, where he would be screaming his freedom of expression from. In Zambia, I reckon that we are not as courageous or we are simply self-censoring that is why we will not see such a painting anytime soon. However, I have recently seen that this freedom of expression is slowly being abused on social media and other internet related sites. This usually comes in play when people are given an opportunity to comment after an article or status. It is difficult to have a constructive discussion because the comments are laced with insults, political insinuations, or tribalist rants. In as much as I am in full support of freedom of expression people should be mindful about the way they choose to exercise this right. When issues of tribe, colour or political affiliation begin to be the mainstay of our daily conversations it is only likely to breed hate.
My overall verdict on Brett Murray’s painting is that even though I do appreciate the fact that he has the right to freedom of expression, it does have its limitations. Murray is not living in a vacuum and should have been mindful of the society in which he was displaying that painting. It is a traditional African society which culturally demands respect for elders. Showing President Jacob Zuma’s private parts in a painting was an absolute abomination which I hope that the uproar it has raised will cause other artists to critically rethink some of their creations.
Should Freedom of Expression be monitored?
Should Freedom of Expression be monitored?