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: firstname.lastname@example.org)