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Getting rude and dirty with politicians should be fine

  • Sifrin Geoff HOME
Attempts by SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng to censor the public broadcaster show one face of the question of how far freedom of expression should stretch. Another is revealed by contentious incidents in South Africa and Israel of sexual political paintings which have raised hackles.
by Geoff Sifrin | Jul 20, 2016

Taking Issue

Can political art be compared to journalism? In Israel, a society of boisterous debate, the head of the art department of Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, Larry Abramson, resigned this week to protest censorship of a student’s painting of a naked woman bearing a representation of right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face against a confusing background of colourful drapery.

The student said the work, intended for exhibition with final projects by graduating seniors, was meant to induce “discomfort” conveying nihilism and an “absence of a coherent position”. The college president instructed that it should be excluded or the face blacked out.

Abramson told Haaretz that without freedom of expression “we don’t have an art school”. If, out of self-censorship, images are silenced or hidden, then “[how] can we advance critical, open and provocative debate, all the things for which art exists?”

Should it make a difference if the work portrays a man or woman? The college president - a woman who was previously minister of culture and also education - said censoring the painting was motivated not by Shaked’s politics but the judgement that the work was hurtful toward women: “As a woman who has [repeatedly] suffered from sexist attacks… I will not let it happen.”

Which takes us to some controversial paintings showing President Jacob Zuma in sexual poses. “The Spear”, by Brett Murray, on exhibition in 2012 showed Zuma with genitals exposed, part of a solo show entitled "Hail to the Thief II".

The ANC threatened to sue for defamation and force Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery to remove the piece, which was later vandalised by visitors.

This month, paintings by Ayanda Mabulu were shown in an exhibition at Constitution Hill, one showing Zuma licking the naked posterior of billionaire businessman Atul Gupta, who has been accused of state capture. An ANC flag appears in the scene, which is a plane’s cockpit - a clear metaphor for capital flight.

Mabulu defended his work saying he was “lashing the hands of the oppressor until they let loose”. He opposed “the hierarchical system where if you climb up, you can be looked at as a demigod, and we, the people on the ground, are looked at as nothing”.

In racially charged South Africa, the fact that Mabulu is black averted racism accusations. If he were white the outcome would probably have been more serious. Despite howls of protest on social media and elsewhere, the works remain untouched.

It recalls a piece by cartoonist Zapiro in 2008 showing Zuma undoing his belt lasciviously while “Lady Justice” is being held down by his political cronies, apparently about to be raped. Zuma started proceedings to sue Zapiro for infringing his dignity, but later withdrew.

What is the role of such lewd political artworks? Should they be banned out of respect for the person’s dignity? Or are they legitimate commentary which, if expressed in another medium - say words or film - would not raise such hackles?

It comes with the territory of being a high-profile public figure that political adversaries can portray you in almost any manner.

In art as in journalism, the right to offend is inherent to freedom of expression. Censorship’s dangerous slippery slope is epitomised by Motsoeneng forbidding SABC staff at a June workshop to question Zuma in coverage for next month’s municipal elections, instructing them to “respect” him, because he is the president. Does this mean he should be “untouchable?” The answer must be an unequivocal “No”.


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog



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