Getting rude and dirty with politicians should be fine – or not?

 

Mabulu with Zuma Gupta painting 2

Should public figures be fair game for sexual portrayal by artists to argue politics? Ayanda Mabulu has touched a sensitive button with his new paintings of Jacob Zuma

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 and evoked praise.

Can political art be compared to critical journalism? Israel is a society where robust debate is inherent in its makeup – but 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. It shows a naked woman bearing a representation of right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face, against a 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.” College president Yuli Tamir ordered that it should be excluded from the exhibition, or else the face should be 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? Tamir – a woman who was previously minister of culture and also of education – said censoring the painting was motivated not by Shaked’s politics but the judgment that the work was hurtful toward women generally in leadership roles in Israel. “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 which was 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. It was later vandalised by visitors in the gallery.

This month, political paintings by artist 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 from the country.

Mabulu defended his work saying he was “lashing the hands of the oppressor until they let loose.” He was opposed to “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 was white the outcome would probably have been more serious. Despite howls of protest on social media and elsewhere, the works remain untouched.

The incident reminds one of a work 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. After its appearance 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. Once censorship begins, it is a dangerous slippery slope – epitomized by Motsoeneng forbidding SABC staff at a recent editorial workshop to question Zuma in coverage for next month’s elections, instructing them to “respect” him, because he is the president.

Does this mean he should be “untouchable”. The disrespect he has shown towards the people of this country has lost him the right to get respect in return. The portrayals of him by Mabulu, Zapiro and Murray – and others – are right on target.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

Tshwane violence 1

Too shocking to watch? A public bus torched in Tshwane during violent demonstrations against the ANC’s choice of a mayoral candidate in local elections in August. Five people were killed in the protests.

AN ENCOURAGING outcome from SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s crude attempt to censor visuals of “bad” news and give South Africans sunshine journalism portraying the ANC in a good light, is the massive outcry against him. Eminent journalists, communications regulator ICASA, the public protector Tuli Madonsela, former SABC board members and even members of the ANC have got involved in combatting his abuse of his powers at the public broadcaster.

Images can be highly provocative, of course, and the media should not be a free-for-all in which any visual, however grotesque, should be aired. Editors face tough decisions when reporting on violence and bloodshed – Motsoeneng, however, is not an editor and should not be making editorial policy.

Responsible media channels are – or should be – careful in how they show visuals which violate the dignity and privacy of people who have gone through terrorist bombings or other traumatic events tearing them apart. Where to draw the line is not a rule set in stone, however – different editors will make different judgments in different circumstances.

Should a bereaved Israeli mother sobbing over the coffin of her murdered teenage daughter be shown to millions of anonymous viewers worldwide? Should a body with its head blown off by a suicide bomber be shown? Most good editors would be careful about how they use such visual material. At the very least, responsible media should give adequate warning to viewers about the disturbing nature of material they publish.

Political agendas may play a role in the editor’s decision and sometimes override considerations of dignity. For example, the shocking images published in May 2008 of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being set alight by a mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand during a xenophobic rampage, served an important role in raising revulsion among citizens and authorities and stopping the attacks – although there have been subsequent similar attacks.

Likewise, the horrifying image – which immediately went viral on social media – of a Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as thousands of refugees fled the Syrian civil war in rickety boats, played an important role in making people worldwide understand how desperate was the refugees’ plight.

What the SABC has done, however, has nothing to with editorial sensitivity or respect for human dignity. In banning images of mobs burning government and other buildings and property, and claiming that this is to prevent viewers being influenced to do the same, the aim is to prevent people understanding how catastrophic ANC rule has been for this country, and how angry South Africans are about not receiving what the party promised them year after year. When mobs burn down tens of schools in Vuwani, torch public buses in Tshwane, and engage in similar acts, they are expressing their rage.

Sadly, these kinds of violent actions have almost become a norm in South Africa today, where people feel they will only be listened to if they become violent, burn things or kill people. This poses grave dangers to the country. South Africans are in the main extremely generous and warm-hearted, but a poison has taken root in the society. Strong leadership is needed to turn the ship of violence around – or else we will see more scenes like the burning Mozambican.

Motsoeneng is said to be close to President Jacob Zuma and has an interest in protecting him. But it’s incredible that the people running the public broadcaster from whom 7 million people receive their news, still think they can get away with censorship and sunshine journalism in the era of the internet. What kind of bubble do they live in? Hopefully the saga will end with him being fired together with his board of lackeys. Perhaps this saga might even be the tipping point when South Africans say “Enough!” to Zuma and his cronies and their contempt for the law?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)