Given all the controversy about art and satire in South Africa over recent weeks I offer this as a small contribution to better understanding the row over one painting in an exhibition of satirical works entitled, Hail the Thief II. Loyalists of President Jacob Zuma maintain that the painting, defaced by two apparent zealots, impugned the diginity of the president because it exposed genitalia. And South Africa’s Film and Publications Board has now placed an R16 restriction on viewing it or images of it (apparently in undefaced form).
Dignity is defined as being “the state or quality of being worthy of honour”. It applies to individuals, not to any office or position. Individuals have to earn respect in order to be deemed worthy of honour. If any individual, especially one holding high office in society, behaves in a manner that is contrary to the norms of decency then that individual loses respect and forfeits dignity.
Highly ranking individuals, having put themselves, by their actions, in such positions, are usually expected not only to apologise to the offended public, but also to resign from positions where they are expected to be above reproach. Failure to do so or, even worse, to repeat behaviour that is widely — even generally — regarded as offensive leaves such individuals open to public criticism; to having their follies and misdemeanours held up to ridicule. To do otherwise would be to support such behaviour as acceptable.
This is the background to The Spear, the painting (styled after a poster representing the Russian revolutionary leader, Lenin) representing a leader who remains in power although being best known — and notorious — for his sexual exploits.
It is correct to assume that the painting represents Jacob Zuma. After all, he is the president of South Africa (a politically powerful man) who also happens to be notorious for having had sex with the HIV+ daughter of one friend and having fathered a child with the daughter of another (in an extended family culture, his daughters), and who has had numerous children out of wedlock while being polygamously married.
The painting is satirical and the role of satire is to hold up to ridicule behaviour that should be scorned and certainly not emulated. Having breached numerous cultural norms — across all ethnic boundaries — Jacob Zuma set himself up to have his exploits mocked.
And the members of South Africa’s Film an Publications Board, by now trying to place an age restriction on a painting have, just as surely, set themselves up for ridicule. Especially since the board has agreed that it would also consider a similar restriction on works such as Michelangelo’s famous nude stature of David.
As the South African artist, Beezy Baily, has asked: Does this mean that a 15-year-old may not see, but may touch protruding portions of art works such as the ancient and priapic carvings of areas such as West Africa?