It is 23:54. Two-and-a-half hours ago, I arrived from the University of Cape Town (UCT), where I was part of a panel discussion on the controversial painting depicting the genitals of President Jacob Zuma, The Spear. I could have written this article on the plane, but felt the need to do it in another safe space – my home. I say another safe space because, since I entered the debate on The Spear, I have not felt as safe as I did in the UCT lecture room where the debate took place. None of the ugliness I had seen, felt and heard up to that point was present in the room.
The irony is that, in the days leading up to the UCT dialogue and on the plane on my way there, I was a bundle of nerves. In my anxiety, I kept on shuttling between the wish that the debate would be as sweet and melodious as a Mozart adagio and hoping that it would be as atonal as the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. As my taxi entered the peaceful grounds of the university campus, a sense of calm descended on me. As I entered what at first I feared would be a bull ring, I had no doubt in my mind that the complex truth about The Spear would come to the fore if we allowed ourselves to be seized by the harmony of atonal music. What follows is a combination of what I did say and what I wish I had said.
The safety of the space allowed me to explore The Spear in terms of complexity and conflict. The theme of conflict is not only about the warring parties which stood against one other in defence or against the portrait. It is also about the fact that some of us experienced intense internal conflict. I, as a matter of biological fact, am a descendant of the Afrikaner, BaSotho, the Khoisan, amaXhosa and amaZulu. I am black and African, and I am not a woman. Some of the conflict was caused by the fact that I kept wondering what I would have thought of The Spear had I been born a woman. Also, as far as the internal conflict is concerned, it did not help that the two lawyers who went to court to argue for the President, Gcina Malindi and Muzi Sikhakhane, are my friends.
A fellow panellist argued that works of art do not have a voice that is their own. I agree. I hold two views in this regard.
First, our interpretation of art is partly an attempt to create artists in our own image. That is why we ask questions such as: What is the role of the artist in (our conception of) society and doesn’t the artist have certain responsibilities? In fact, to the extent that this furore is about free- dom of expression, it occurred to me that, in the homes of this country, children are taught, indoctrinated or threatened into accepting limits to their freedom of expression and later in life, especially if the ‘wrong’ political party or leader ascends to power, are expected to be vigorous in claiming this freedom.
Second, what lends meaning to a work of art is a multiplicity of factors, such as gender, race, class, culture, misappropriation of culture, religion, political orientation, collective and historical memory, sexual orientation and historical context. It is for this reason that a work of art such as The Spear will, unavoidably, attract a multipli- city of meanings. But it would be problematic to pretend that all meanings are accorded the same status, given our history, current political reality and political opportunism. As unpalatable as this may sound to some, because we were rudely interrupted by colonialism, apartheid and Christianity, the numerical minority has become the cultural majority and its ways of seeing and being, as well as its world view, are privileged over those of others.
In addition, the cultural majority tries to impose its social, cultural, political, intellectual and economic Darwinism on the rest of society. But, in some respects, voluntarily and through a process of assimilation and cooption, I am one of those black people about whom it can be safely said that they are part of the cultural majority. That said, the fact that I am part of the cultural majority does not, in any substantive or substantial way, change the racial content of the cultural majority and the cultural minority.
But this kind of analysis must not blind us to another reality – the fact that power in South Africa does not reside only in the State and the ruling party. It resides in a multiplicity of points, such as business, civil society, academia and the media, and the manner in which it is exercised is partly responsible for our partial-sightedness.