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Unchain my art

Alex Eliseev
Opinion

Alex Eliseev looks at the outrage created by a piece of art and the president's genitals.


While the case of the art world versus the presidential penis rumbles on, it’s perhaps time for Jacob Zuma to confront an uncomfortable truth: sometimes, you get the respect you deserve.

The debate over a painting depicting President Jacob Zuma’s penis has produced two very distinct lines of argument: “let there be freedom of expression” says one school of thought, while another argues “it’s disrespectful, take it down”. 

I must state up front that I side with those who believe that we should all be free to create art, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

I view it in the same way I see Die Antwoord – I don’t have to like the band to appreciate it. At a concert not so long ago, I stood in awe of their act as others left disgusted or bored.

I don’t speak Afrikaans (even though I can understand the basic swear words), and yet I was impressed that this artistic project – whatever it may be – was allowed to play out before my eyes. And not only my eyes, but the eyes of the world. I wrestled with my feelings about the fact that this was the kind of music we were exporting to other countries, but when a staff member at a museum in Washington DC asked me about Die Antwoord (imagine the American pronunciation), I was pleasantly amused. 

My sister is an artist. In my eyes, a brilliant artist. Over the past 30 years I have watched her go through various artistic phases, from covering her skin in wild tattoos to shaving off all her bright red hair, Sinead O’Connor-style. She has swayed with the winds of her inspiration and splashed the world in beautiful bright colours. Many of her paintings hang in my house and bring me endless joy.

I see the art world through my sister, and others like her. I believe that artists should never be banned or have their paintings taken down from gallery walls. They occupy a different dimension from those of us who slip into suits each morning, drink fancy coffee from Vida and devote thought to things like medical aids and credit card limits. And for that reason, they should be allowed to exist without interference. Because when artists produce something that touches our souls, it reminds us why we exist.

I have walked through many art galleries, from the Hermitage in St Petersburg to the MET in New York, and don't claim to have liked everything I saw. But that's the beauty of the experience: having those private thoughts, walking away or spending an eternity looking at one painting. The choice to be absorbed or to be disgusted.

While debating this issue on Twitter, I was asked how I would feel if it was me painted with my penis dangling from my trousers. It was a good question that made me think.

I can imagine that to Jacob Zuma, this painting is repulsive and offensive. I do not dispute that it's exceptionally controversial and tests the fine line between expression and insult. But it is not the first. Consider the way Zuma has been depicted by the country’s top cartoonist, Zapiro. He has been shown with a shower head glued to his head and a sperm-shooting machine gun for a penis (a reminder of the rape trial which saw him acquitted) or pulling down his pants and preparing to rape Lady Justice. Zuma is suing Zapiro (and others) for defamation of character, but the point is that this is not the first time something like this has happened, which tells us something about public perception.

The question needs to be asked: are we witnessing an assassination of Zuma’s character or are we seeing the art world holding up a mirror to a man who has never been far from controversy? Would artists have painted Barack Obama with his penis hanging out? Obama has been depicted as a monster by those who disagree with his policies, but it has never been about his private parts. The man commands too much respect for that. On the other hand, think about how former US president Richard Nixon used to be torn apart by cartoonists and painters. 

This led me to ask: if artists were painting me, what would they paint? What would I see in the mirror held up by those who interpret the world with their paintbrushes? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t be the same as Zuma. 

I have an open mind to this debate. But my opinion is that the kind of life you live is directly responsible for the kind of images you will see staring back at you, and suing art galleries to ban them is a desperate and ridiculous move.

More than that, a court’s intervention in what a private gallery can or cannot display is a slippery slope. What would follow? Legal interventions in what we can or cannot hang up on the walls of our homes? The banning of artists and their works, like the kind that once existed in the country where I was born, Russia? Books being burned? Poets being exiled? If this sounds dramatic, forgive me. The truth is, there are still countries where this happens – where people go to jail for their artistic expression. Plus, the more you ban art the more interest it generates and the more people are drawn to it.

In democratic South Africa, as constitutional expert Pierre De Vos points out, there is no law to stop an artist from making such a portrait and if there were, it would be unconstitutional.

A leader cannot shout down to people and force them to see him in a certain light. If they see him as the naked emperor, then so be it.

The most tragic part of all of this is that without the ANC’s threat of legal action against the Goodman Gallery, this painting would have probably slipped by unnoticed. The endless jokes about “member of state”, “organ of state” and the “dismembering” of Zuma would not have started.

While the City Press carried the picture inside its pages, the day after the ANC’s rant it landed up on the front page of the dailies. As some political analysts have described it, it was a perfect “own goal”.

We cannot avoid this argument splintering along racial and cultural lines, and I expect a lot of reaction around this. But do read what City Press editor Ferial Haffajee - the one who first published the picture on Sunday - has to say about the issue. 

"I'm tired of people who desire to kill ideas of which they do not approve," she writes. "We are in Mzansi after all, not Afghanistan..."

I can't see this case making it to court. But if it does, watch it closely, it will be a fascinating battle of right to privacy and dignity versus freedom of expression.

From my side, I do believe a country’s president should be respected. But that respect needs to be earned and cannot be shoved down our throats through the courts. Like an editor that inspires a journalist, a president should inspire his country’s citizens.

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