• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

Brett Murray, self-photo from exhibit "Crocodile Tears"

What happens when a successful, left-leaning, fully progressive artist realizes he’s been had? That his dreams of brotherhood, equality and peace were just a front for hucksters and power-mad men who conned him into illustrating their campaigns?

So far this has only been a rhetorical question in the U.S. and Europe, where virtually no well-known visual artists have publicly switched sides after a moral or political epiphany. Certainly not those who toiled with heart, soul and heaps of cash offered to their change agent in the great White House of hope. That would require humility and an uncomfortable, even sorrowful admission of guilt; something alcoholics have learned but frightens the snot from the rarified nostrils of most Western intelligentsia.

South African artist Brett Murray is an exception to all the above. Ardent liberal and defender of human rights, he campaigned against apartheid with the best of them. When the African National Congress, or ANC, stepped into power amidst expectations of justice and equality, the world rejoiced. Flowers bloomed in the Antarctic and extinct species of animals returned to life. Unfortunately their glee was premature – but not unexpected by rationalists – as the ANC is a branch of the African Communist Party. After years of soaring corruption, racial strife and violence, Murray embarked on a personal journey of his own to expose the many abuses of the ANC.

“Hail to the Thief,” his controversial and caustic 2012 exhibit, ignited a national blast up that is still rumbling across South Africa. Murray’s strategy quite brilliantly incorporates ANC’s Marxist and South African slogans directly into his work with the high irony that comes through disillusionment. Alluding to speeches and scandals by Presidents Mbeki and Zuma, Murray openly mocks and taunts them. He won’t run out of material. Episodes of their corruption are so rampant, virtually everyone is aware of them and they are barely denied.

Co-opting the hammer and sickle into slickly produced pieces, Murray stamps his satirical commentary into crowns, seals, logos, screen prints, texts, cartoons and statues. His series “Inventory” mocks entrenched government greed in simple, Soviet poster style. “Miltant Youth” is paradoxically speared by the U.S. dollar sign.

Another print flatly announces, “Biko is Dead,” an obvious commentary on the death of Steven Biko’s dream for his nation – the end of racism and violence.

Murray explains, “Paradoxically through this critique and comic exposure, we actually begin to define a preferred ideal in which we would like to live.”

"AMANDLA (Struggle)" by Brett Murray

Racism is Murray’s other major theme – entrenched, official and relentless racism by the ANC used to silence and intimidate the white population (the most likely to challenge them at the polls) into political submission. Something most artists and writers won’t touch, but Murray deals with the subject by at least two means.

His earlier work, such as “White Like Me” in 2002, is a personal but provocative introspection where he questioned his identity and possible guilt over apartheid. But after 20 years of total native governance, Murray may have grown tired of groveling over another generation’s mistakes so that men like Zuma could rule unchallenged.

From his first speech over the art crisis made just a few days back, Murray explains his motives: “On the show ['Crocodile Tears'] I presented many ostentatious images of the privileged and the powerful. The figures were in full Renaissance finery, but now the white faces of expediency where transformed into the black faces of entitlement.”

An anonymous South African contributor to News 24 laments the use of the word “racist” solely as a political tool: “In South Africa, the word ‘racist’ has lost its original meaning and is now only used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like.”

In resistance to South Africa’s endemic, governmentally endorsed racism, Murray turned contemporary race-theory constructs upside down. Creating intentionally shocking images from the past where blacks appeared as apish, grotesque or even painted whites, he concentrates the most extreme ideas about racism. More unsettling is the lighthearted, even flip manner he presents them to us, as in “Power and Patronage” or two pigs rutting away called “At the Trough.” A poodle with amplified bosom called “Mrs. Entitled.”

His art lives in its own iconography; from a black-face Marie Antoinette to a pageant of specialized comic characters. Identical aliens show up each questioning the “other.” Nudity, vulgarity, racial stereotypes and misquotes – he shocks but with deliberation and intent. Murray’s art is elegant and considered, a continuous body of work reflecting personal, political and racial identity in South Africa, where apparently almost nothing else matters at this point

Conceding that the he is not “ignorant of the complexities of images of blackface,” Murray admits trope is deeply problematic.

“My concern is that it will be read as proof to the naysayers of my innate racism,” he explained.

Nor does Murray consider taking on the ANC establishment a light task. In his January 27 book opening speech he reveals his ambivalence to the audience.

“Don’t you just want to run screaming and go and see ‘Shrek’ in 3D? I do,” he said. “But this is the uncomfortable monkey on my back. It is what I do and have to do and will return to again and again.”

Murray drives a hard and unpleasant point here, but he’s clearly no racist. We’re left with this message: Racial identity politics are divisive, ugly and dangerous even when applied to whites only.

Collage of works by Brett Murray

The ANC lies just behind the crosshairs of Murray’s contempt, especially its officials.

“Tell my people that I love them and they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal and kickbacks,” venerated freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu speaks from a poster.

Murray appends booze and extortion as political commentary on ANC practices, not as an attack on Mahlangu’s character. But he is well aware of the bad faith digging up national heroes may effect.

Other references to the ANC include statues, usually in bronze, of copulating dogs, pigs and apes. A squat, simian-like man probably refers to the character of Zuma and is a vitriolic and aggressive comment by itself.

“Sick and wrong, or sick and right?” Murray recently questioned an audience.

Murray hasn’t hidden his contempt for the nation’s corrupt leadership for years and parodies them with “pseudo-Soviet iconography and Comrade-Viva-Viva language of the new pigs at the trough … MasterCard Marxists, at best.”

He also receives positive critical acclaim for his work, which is excellently crafted regardless of medium.

“I was encouraged to see commentators come out immediately in support of the painting and in favour of an unfettered freedom of speech, as is constitutionally enshrined,” he said.

Few critics and artists distanced themselves from “The Spear” controversy, but for the most part attacks came from ANC supporters rolling out what Murray had earlier pegged as “crocodile tears.”

Jackson Mthembu demanded Murray “apologize to the people of South Africa, the ANC and everybody” because “this pain has been so deep-seated.”

David Makhura claimed willingness to “defend anyone who was insulted in the name of art.”

He’s going to be busy a long time, then.

Will it affect his future work? Murray admits the “Spear Saga” left behind some self-consciousness and doubt and could be an albatross around his neck for good. But he reminds us self-censorship is exactly what the “current crop at the helm would want.”

President Jacob Zuma is his primary target lately, and Murray has been fending off poison arrows as the vast machinery of a corrupt administration shoots back with all its resources. Murray’s painting “The Spear” was the final straw for the publicity-challenged and thin-skinned Zuma.

“The Spear” depicts the president, fully dressed with the exception of a rather pendulous member hanging from his pants. Zuma’s oblivious power pose reminded Njabulo S. Ndebele of the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in his excellent essay on the painting and why it so exactly works. Zuma, like the Emperor who is unable to govern his country or care for all his people, proves unfit to hold office and “unpardonably stupid.”

Any of various Mbeki or Zuma quotes could be picked at random as proof of “unpardonably stupid,” yet here are a few culled by South African opponents.

Zuma claimed repeatedly the eternal rule of the ANC, even linking it to “divine will,” and in 2004 said, “The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.”

Asked outright about corruption, specifically whether he was a “crook,” a grown man came up with this answer: “Me? Well, I don’t know, I must go to a dictionary and learn what a crook is. I’ve never been a crook.”

I don’t appreciate unnecessarily vulgar art, but Murray didn’t make this to be liked, but reacted to. Generally this kind of art is made purely for shock and insult – there is no background, no context at least that I have seen. Not so with Zuma and his stuff.

I can think of two more reasons a penis works as a perfect symbol for the ANC. An epidemic of rape smothers the nation while ANC leaders deny it and ex-President Mbeki claims that HIV has no relation to sex and doesn’t call for medical care. We knew all along that AIDS was just a fabricated conspiracy by colonial powers to decimate the population and deny them various sex partners … for some reason.

Zuma never drops the rhetoric of South Africa’s dreary, dark days, rather like Obama with slavery and Jim Crow. Everything is posed in the “us/them,” black/white formula, blocking any possibility of future healing.

The communist government of SA and President Zuma responded to Murray’s freedom of expression by suing the gallery and the artist personally. Dragging it out as long as possible, Zuma dropped the charges toward the end as it was clear he probably wouldn’t prevail.

The case against Murray was so weak that Zuma was counseled to drop it early, and ANC’s advocate Malindi broke down in tears at court.

Murray speculated, “Zuma didn’t want his dirty laundry publicly aired, again.”

Even without a victory, charges like this deplete and harass opponents. Americans are experiencing this kind of abuse at this moment.

Murray accused ANC of using his painting for expedient political ends claiming, “The whole saga was 90 percent politics and 10 percent art.”

Murray’s painting was also defaced by two men who are likely agents of the state. Even Zuma’s daughters by one his many wives brought complaints against Murray for attacking their father’s “dignity.”

But the most bizarre defender of Zuma’s honor comes from the church. Of all the violence and racism in South Africa, the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church was unaccountably mortified over an insulting painting of the president. Upset enough to suggest Murray be stoned to death for his offense against “a black man.” This is a serious threat coming from a denomination of between 4 to 6 million members in South Africa with apparent lunatics in leadership.

South African Presbyterians also invoked the name of God recently at their 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo, claiming his preference for the ANC over other parties. They agreed with Zuma that “those who insult leaders in positions of authority would be cursed” but didn’t go so far as to extend the divine favor over past apartheid leaders as well.

Both Murray and Goodman Gallery (which hosted the show) have suffered death threats, legal challenges and harassment in retaliation. Still, he’s carrying on a defensive culture war, and an expanded version of the exhibit appears on his website. Murray points fingers, uses real names and reaps the expected reaction from faux-benevolent dictators.

Even darker is the constant threat of violence over free-thinkers. South Africa has a national anthem, but President Zuma prefers to sing of murdering whites in public gatherings. While campaigning in 2012, Zuma led a huge crowd in a rousing version of “Umshini wami (“bring me my machine”), which means “machine gun” to be used on opponents. Armed soldiers pranced about in a charming display of national unity. Zuma’s larger repertoire includes a song about killing Afrikaners as if they were on a hunt: “They will run and hide, we will shoot them. They are white men.” Ha-hah! What fun it is to be in the ANC.

Machine gun song, a favorite of President Zuma, artwork by Brett Murray

This isn’t the first time Murray reacted to ANC’s genocidal lyrics.

Four years ago in the exactly the same gallery he wrote, “Every time I hear you sing the machine gun song, I want to find one and shove it up your fat a–.”

His friend and fellow artist Johnathan Shapiro suffers under the ANC for the same reasons, not obsequious enough. Known as “Zapiro,” his biting wit and constant attacks through his popular cartoons seem to keep government officials up at night. Zuma particularly hates Zapiro’s “shower head theme” inspired by the president’s constant reassurance that God approves the ANC and will destroy her enemies. Thus, “let us s-pray” began. Both Zapiro and his publisher the Sunday Times have been dragged to court for defamation over cartoons several times.

When Zuma isn’t invoking Jesus to destroy his enemies, he’s off in the bush slaughtering cows in ancient ancestry worship. Although he did this to insure his election victory in 2012, it’s generally considered a form of witchcraft by the church – excepting the Nazareth Shembe Church, of course.

Murray is actually encouraged over the mountains of hate-mail, as it is evenly divided between various racial groups.

“This was also enlightening in that the fault lines of these debates and discussions were not based on race … despite the state’s attempt to colour the saga accordingly,” he contends.

Unexpected support shows up from all sides. Late ANC President Oliver Tambo’s daughter Tselane Tambo stood up boldly for Murray in print.

“So the Pres JZ has had his portrait painted and he doesn’t like it,” she wrote. “Do the poor enjoy poverty? Do the unemployed enjoy hopelessness? He must get over it. No one is having a good time. He should inspire the reverence he craves. This portrait is what he inspired.”

I wasn’t able to ask Murray if his opinion of Marxism has fundamentally changed, or if he felt it had merely been co-opted to a tribal and self-serving cause. But his pieces appear openly condemning. Stalin’s portrait in cut metal is stamped “Tribal Elder,” and there’s the Leninesque power pose in “The Spear.”

Equally fascinating and terrifying are the eerie similarities between the situation in South Africa and the United States in recent years: the terrific din over white guilt and fear of offense backed with legislation – the increasingly racial divide and targeted violence.

A quote from Secretary General of the ANC Gwede Mantashe sounds vaguely familiar: “What we can’t win in the courts we will win in the streets!”

In our case executives resort to their pens and phones, no riots required.

As Murray says, “So much for our constitutional democracy.”

I don’t have time to examine this here in depth, but it’s worth thinking about, or perhaps someone may begin painting …

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.