24. The Spear.

Art isn’t really a big deal round here. Sure, the big cities have a gallery or two, and like every country we do have a community of both artists and art lovers, but the vast majority of us, even those who are better educated and better off, are about as likely to pop into a gallery over the weekend as we are to attempt the world naked backward-running record. We don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with it, it just doesn’t occur to us. Except for last year. Last year, we all became rabid art critics for a month or two.

The whole of South Africa, May, 2012

The whole of South Africa, May, 2012

There is an artist out here called Brett Murray. I had never heard of him before, but apparently he had had some success, both here and overseas. He had an exhibition, coincidentally round the corner from where I worked, called “Hail to the Thief”. As I have said before, I’m no art critic, but I didn’t think it was particularly good. It was basically just a series of visual jokes and digs at our ruling party.

There were ANC badges with “For Sale” Stickers attached. There were posters echoing South Africa’s struggle for liberation, but instead of demands for freedom and equality, there were demands for Chivas Regal, BMW’s, and bribes. Like I say, I wasn’t blown away. It was all too obvious. There was no subtlety to it. But up against one wall, in boldly contrasting black and red, there was a bombshell. It was called “The  Spear”. It will seem familiar to you, because you’ve seen this;


There he is. Lenin. The man of the people. The great leader, thrusting himself boldly into the future. He is imposing. Defiant. Heroic. Even godlike.

Here was our version;


There he is. Zuma. The man of the people. The great leader, thrusting himself boldly into the future. He is imposing. Defiant. Heroic. Even godlike. And he has his dong out.

This should come as no surprise. The man is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. Despite being rather busy as the president, Zuma has a quite staggering after-hours programme. His sex-life would exhaust the average twenty-year-old. Zuma is seventy.

He has, as we speak, four wives. One would think that that would, at his age, seem like rather too much nocturnal company. It isn’t enough. He’s engaged to be married again. That isn’t enough either, it would seem. You see, our President has fourteen children by his wives. But he has over twenty two children. They keep popping out of the woodwork.

When he was charged with rape, the original judge had to recuse himself because it turned out Zuma had fathered a child by his sister. He had another two children with a businesswoman in Pietermaritzburg. And another three with a woman in Jo’burg. And another one with a woman in Richards Bay. And he’s just had another with the daughter of a famous football manager. At some point, people were going to start pointing and laughing. And point and laugh we did.

Come inside, kids! It's time for supper.

Come inside, kids! It’s time for supper.

That’s all this picture is. It’s a not particularly clever visual joke. He can’t seem to keep it in his pants.

But then something odd happened. The picture found its way out of the rarefied halls of the gallery and into the public domain. The response was fascinating.

South Africa has eleven official languages. There are black people, white people, Indian people, coloured people (that’s what mixed race people call themselves round here). We all think we know each other; that we get along. And for the most part we do. But every now and then, something happens that reminds us that we don’t really know each other at all. This picture was one of them.

Because the response was rage. We have grown accustomed to the ANC’s almost comically hyperbolic  responses to minor slights and offences. But this was different. Something bigger lay underneath this. And at first, we didn’t see it.

The arty types began to make a bit of noise about the integrity of the message and the value of art as a form of protest. The rest of the educated classes mumbled that if he didn’t want people seeing his dick, he shouldn’t be showing it to quite so many people. And the masses were incandescent. This was no theatrical posturing by Zuma’s party. I spoke to quite a few people about this. Working class black people. They were genuinely angry. They were hurt. They began to mutter about racism. South Africa’s tired and battered old beast raised its ugly, battle-scarred head. It was about race . Again.

It was, they told me, about respect. And I think, in retrospect, it was. And it wasn’t about respect for Zuma the man. It was about a deeply ingrained tenet of African culture. You respect your elders. Always. Because they are your elders. You respect your leaders. Always. Because they are your leaders. You do not, no matter what they have done, draw pictures of them with their dongs hanging out.

Wisdom comes with age like assault comes with battery

Wisdom comes with age like assault comes with battery

It’s easy to forget that this is not an African thing. It’s universal. The words wise and old still fit comfortably together. Honour thy father and thy mother. There are those of us who have been freed, by education and comfort, to think more critically, to decide for ourselves who to respect or not. To feel that respect should be earned. But that is a new and radical idea. And most of the world doesn’t think like that.

And so we all stood at the brink of something nasty. Protests were organised. Threats were made. Threats of legal action. Threats of violence. The Film and Publications Board gave the picture an age restriction. The newspaper that printed the picture was threatened with a boycott. And then something wonderful happened. Something that could only happen here.

A young black man went into the gallery where the picture hung. He must have been nervous. He was a simple man, a taxi driver, not the sort who would have been into a gallery before. And he had a secret. He had a pot of black paint. He was going to sort it all out. He was going to destroy the cause of all this drama. He came to the offending picture and stood before it. His heart must have been in his mouth, his hands sweating. He had never done anything like this before. His hand gripped the pot under his coat and he began a tentative step forward. And then a fifty-year-old white man in a tweed coat stepped out of the crowd next to him and spray-painted a cross over the offending dong.

What's gonna work? Teamwork.

What’s gonna work? Teamwork.

It wasn’t a team effort. The two had never met. I have always wondered what the taxi driver must have thought. I suspect it was  something like “Screw you! I wanted to do that!” But he was not put off for long. He hauled out his pot and got to work. And there they stood for one perfect moment, together, slaying the beast. And then the police took them away. But only after they had made us South Africa again.

When we woke up the next day, it was all over. The people who do that sort of thing for a living or a hobby kept up their posturing and postulating. Open letters were written. Interviews about artistic freedom and social commentary were conducted. There were denials, recriminations, criticisms. Some enterprising soul even found a Zuma dong painting done by a black person, to show that it wasn’t a race thing after all. Just a dong thing. But ugly edge was gone, and the rest of just heaved a sigh of relief and went on with our lives.

Viva South Africa, home of non-racist, non-sexist Zuma dong paintings. Viva!

Viva South Africa, home of non-racist, non-sexist Zuma dong paintings. Viva!

I don’t think we even learned anything. We still happily laugh at the President’s dong and what he does with it. We still misunderstand each other sometimes. And the beast has not been slain. There are too many issues here that we have never really dealt with. But we kept it at bay for another day, and that has to be a good thing.

And maybe next time it comes roaring towards us we’ll take a deep breath and give each other a nod and a wink before we rush into the fray, and remember that we don’t need to know each other. We don’t need to understand each other. We just need to remember that the good things happen when, for just a second, we stand together to beat it back. Before the police take us away.

Together we can make something beautiful.

Together we can make something beautiful.

21 thoughts on “24. The Spear.

  1. Johna Till Johnson says:

    Loved, loved, loved this story. Thanks for telling it!

  2. erickuns says:

    Very nicely written and thoroughly entertaining. The art in question I think was third rate, whereas the reworked piece is far more interesting, even on a purely formal basis. One may consider the painting over to be an act of art (Rauschenberg once erased a De Kooning drawing, and THAT was art). Nice analysis of people’s reactions, especially the part of some thinking the art was racist (as opposed to just being simplistic), and the blind deference to age and power. Where is the follow button. Ah. Right at the top. Excellent.

    • 23thorns says:

      There was an interesting discussion about the piece. It had already been bought by a German buyer before it was defaced. There were those who felt that he would still want it and wouldn’t want it restored. That the story behind it would actually add to its value. There might be a career for me here- I can’t paint, but I recon I’d be pretty good when it came to defacing things.

      • erickuns says:

        I’d still want the painting, but the German may have been buying it specifically for the dong, in which case the work now has no value whatsoever. I’m not sure you could deface art with the purity and authenticity of naive commitment those fellers had. By the way, the stuff about Zuma (like the video game better than the dude) and all his children was funny, particularly the part about the judge who had to recuse himself from the rape trial because Zuma was the father of his sister’s child. You just can’t make up shit like that.

  3. safia says:

    You were the first blogger to ‘like’ my first blog two weeks ago and it’s taken me that long to find my way around. So glad I read this article – it’s balanced and leaves the reader to make up his/her own mind. Just by reading the comments above, one can see how different conclusions are drawn. Great blog – happy to be following you.

  4. panos48 says:

    Article ReBlogged by SA Bloggers – http://www.southweb.org/coza/

  5. Marcia says:

    Still speechless, here. (That’s TWO, count ’em, TWO in a row!)

  6. Lyn says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m learning more and more about South Africa – and not just the Aardvarks. It makes you realise how good you actually have it compared to others.

  7. narf77 says:

    We all get old…not all of us get wiser…respect is earned NOT a right and your president doesn’t appear to have earned much respect due to his desire to repopulate the earth with his progeny. Just wondering…I have a rooster who appears to be related to your president…He has fathered children all over the neighbourhood…do you think it is worth putting him up as a candidate in the next elections? In bird terms he is quite elderly so would naturally garner an incredible amount of respect and as your president has obviously used this to his own advantage, surely my rooster “The Big Yin” could perhaps gain tenet as some kind of well paid deputy president? (Splitting the royalties of COURSE with the 23Thorn family…). When respect is demanded you end up with a cowed population who don’t ask questions. Tasmania is a prize example of just such a history. No-one asks questions here…everyone is used to being unemployed, queueing, being told what to do, being pointed in the direction that corrupt government officials want to push them in and not realising how badly treated they have been. We have a terrible lack of education in Tasmania. The locals have a 66% chance of not being able to read or write and its only since we “Mainlanders” have invaded en masse that some of these terrible injustices are being uncovered. Keeping the status quo and “respect” for elders and officials is just one step away from actively supporting corruption…sounds like South Africa and Tasmania might have more in common than I would have thought possible doesn’t it? Love the repurposed painting…no doubt the communist leader bought it for 46 million rand the day after to hang in “The People’s” office in downtown Cape Town? (Just had to look up where the legislative capital of South Africa was…forgive me my stupidity! 😉 )…by the way…don’t get scared but it appears your words have manged to ressurect Jim Morrison from the dead! Keep it up, lets see if we can’t get Jimi Hendrix and Janis back for a concert together, they would pay more than ABBA reuniting! All of your troubles would be gone. Forget sparkly vampires, rocking zombies are more in tune with your ethos sir!

  8. asklotta says:

    Art is suppose to evoke emotions within…I guess my question is: Why does his “dong” evoke such stupidity in women and hence men?

  9. Ashana M says:

    I am very much enjoying your political series. I had no idea when I began reading your blog to learn more about aardvarks that you could also write so engagingly about people.

  10. Jim Morrison says:

    Last year I did not understand the reaction. Thanks for your comments today.

  11. billgncs says:

    that artist was brave – Art can be meaningful, and present things into the public conversation that are always hushed. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Reworking that ‘art’ work was true respect. Thank you for this wise piece.

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