The Naked Truth: Ayanda Mabulu vs Brett Murray & The Emperor’s New Hose
Recently, an emerging South African artist produced an artwork that depicted President Jacob Zuma naked. That’s right: naked. The name of this artist? Ayanda Mabulu. Funnily enough, you did not hear about this. The ANC did not hear about this. No one protested; no gallery owner was threatened; no marches were staged; no art was defaced. In light of that other thing that happened recently, Unathi Kondile would like you to know why.
Next, in our naked double feature Stacy Hardy pre-empts the saga with a fairy tale tour de farce exploring the doubts, delusions, miscalculations, mutinies, and minor triumphs of the now notorious presidential penis.
Ayanda Mabulu vs Brett Murray
Firstly, I’d like to thank Brett Murray for his contribution to the arts.
Secondly, I wish I could deliver canapés and wine to all the South African households who have had the privilege of entering a gallery from the comfort of their homes, courtesy of our media’s walkabouts therein.
Thirdly, I’d like to talk about the state of the Art, in South Africa, as well as the neglected role of township / black artists in post-apartheid South Africa.
Let’s just rewind to 2010. An artist named Ayanda Mabulu. Pause. I thought this was a pseudonym at first, because this name and surname combo means “Afrikaners are expanding!” You have to love the irony of naming in Africa. Anyway, Ayanda Mabulu produces a piece titled “Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi” (better a fool than a rich man’s nonsense, loosely translated). It’s exhibited at Worldart Gallery towards the end of 2010. This is it:
Without going into too much detail about the work (above), it shows President Jacob Zuma’s manhood in crutches and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s manhood tied up as if it’s injured (both blurred out for the purposes of this site). Mabulu explained these representations as metaphors – the crutches on the president’s manhood indicate overuse and that it needs crutches to get by. Tutu’s tied up manhood alludes to how weakened the Archbishop has become, he is “incapacitated and ‘colonised’ by Western values – in pain, just like during initiation [circumcision].”
I would imagine such prominent penises would cause an outcry of bellowing proportions. But alas, calm prevailed, largely because this work remained in the elitist confines of the art world. Protected from the underdeveloped minds of those that aren’t acquainted to fine art. Protected from uncouth admirers who would gobble this up all too literally. Safe. ‘Outsiders’ could not access it and the media couldn’t give a toss about what some black artist had done.
Forward to today. Brett Murray produces The Spear which depicts the president of South Africa in a Lenin-like stance with his manhood dangling below. The City Press newspaper picks this spear up and runs with it. And boy do they run with it. The editor is beyond herself with bewilderment of selling papers to an art consuming market. She can’t wait. All those art connoisseurs buying her paper. Praise Murray! A few days later the ANC is up in arms about this depiction of the president. They’re even up in arms with the City Press, which gave a hand in the distribution… The rest is history, as they say. As all of this is relegated to the country’s latest frenzy – outcry on social media and only one or two iconoclastically inclined vandals are bold enough to do something about the work.
Question is: Why was there no outcry over Ayanda Mabulu’s depiction of president Zuma?
Yes, Brett Murray is a renowned artist (within his own or art circles), but not to the overwhelming majority that is against his work. Who he is is irrelevant to this outcry. So, why was there no outrage around Mabulu’s work? The answer to this is much more complex than because he is a black artist or it’s politics. The answer to this could tear South Africa’s art farce to pieces. Shred it. But today I do not feel like tearing anything. So I’ll be gentle. If we look at the current crop of black South African artists that are going places or have made it you will largely notice that their work revolves around identity: blackness and sexuality to be precise. Nothing else.
Whereas if you look at their white counterparts, who went to the same art institutions – they have the leisure of placing a box of Omo next to a box of Joko and calling that Joko Omo (Yoko Ono) in an art gallery. And praise prevails. If a black artist were to attempt to display such it would be ignored, laughed off as imbecility and not art. Only white artists are capable of conceptual art production. Blacks have to stick to the obvious “speak about yourself in your work! Tell us how lesbian you are, how black you feel, etcetera. Only.”
I could go on. But to keep this short, the reason Ayanda Mabulu’s artwork didn’t cause ripples is because as far as art is concerned a black artist is intellectually incapable of producing a complex work – blacks are incapable of satire – until they are verified by their white counterparts. No conceptualism, surrealism, avant-gardism, post-modernism or post-postmodernism in black art. Keep it simple. Black stories must always be kept straightforward so as to not confuse the white reader.
It is only when the African story is told through the white lens that newspapers and the general public will pay attention. There are so many black artists in this country producing artworks that are screaming to be heard. Producing artworks about township life, poverty, inequality and how government has failed them. But I am afraid, until the overwhelmingly white curators, educators and narrators of art decide that such work is also art, we will only see the Mabulus when said white curator and white art educators are trying to defend their Brett Murrays. Suddenly we hear, “but Ayanda Mabulu did it too!” oh, so all along you knew about Mabulu’s work but failed to heap it with praise like you do to the Murrays? Okay.
So once again, I would like to thank Brett Murray for his artwork that has put art on the media map once again. The lack of media attention to Fine Art is a disgrace in this country. Considering we have a long history of resistance art that contributed to the liberation of this country too.
Today, more than ever, I feel that art can be flung out of those white cube spaces such as the Goodman Gallery and into public discourse, much like The Spear has been thrown around – so that it challenges the public and stimulates this kind of debate. Art must and can challenge service delivery in this country. It can challenge corruption, even. But the problem is that no one will pay attention to such art when it comes from black artists and if it comes from a white artist it will be dismissed as racism or black contempt easily.
I am hoping that all of this will cast light on the plight of black artists who are not allowed, by artistic norms and art education to express themselves beyond my-identity-this-my-identity-that.
Fine Art, like many other
spears spheres of the Arts plays a fundamental role in the development of a society.
I trust that the media will keep its ear on the Fine Art ground from here onwards. There are stories there.
The Emperor’s New Hose
The President of the Republic is having a shit day. He has the feeling something is missing. Somehow he has forgotten, let something slip. The feeling has been with him for some time now. Since morning. God knows it starts badly. He wakes up late, sweating in his new bed. Still dressed in his silk shirt, Italian boxers.
The fault of the Russians undoubtedly. The previous night they kept him up, had insisted, another drink, a not-so-clear cocktail of vodka, palinka and rakiya, which he was forced to swallow. It went on and on – a mad pact! Something resurrected from the old party days, cold war, “the struggle” era. The endless toast: to the revolution, liberation, to glasnost, to capitalism! And to Lenin, of course, rotting in his tomb, dead, brainless, longing for the air, longing for freedom…
He frowns, tries to remember, the song they were singing? An old communist anthem. He taps a rhythm with his fingers. How did it go? He racks his brain and tries dah-dum-dah-dit-dah. Not that way, damn it. He tries again – dat-dat – through his alcohol soaked brain – dit-dit – the mists of times. He closes his eyes. He gropes for the tune in the dark – dit-dah –
It is the phone that wakes him. Has he forgotten!? The party congress? His big speech! Of course not! Already he is out of bed, jumping from the bunk, swaying. On his toes. Big feet slap the tiles. In the mirror his cheeks are swollen, eyes sunken. He will feel better after a shower. The narrow cubicle that promises security, enclosure. The walls, the tiles, the ceiling. The shining gold faucets. How gently the water murmurs, swirls and swills down the drain. The alcohol leaving his system, only a residue, a dim feeling that there is something, something he ought to be doing….
Even as he drinks his first cup of coffee, a voice nagging him…. Darling you’re not… He waves his wife away. He has no time for her attentions today, still in her slippers, her hair on end, how she always fusses with his food, his clothes, ticking off his preferences (tea or coffee? toast or cereal? briefs or boxers?) He slams down the mug, walks resolute, ignoring her voice, behind him, scarcely able to keep up, darling, darling wait your…. slams the door, so hard the glass quivers, quakes in his exit.
His office is in chaos. Everyone waiting. They crowd the door. All a jostle, all pushing for his attention: Mr President! Mr President! The pervading urgency of their voices. No! Not today. He needs to focus, the party congress, the big speech – the piles of documents that scatter his desk. Double typed, that large font, well spaced. He plops down. Settles giant arse into black leather. Wiggles himself comfortable. Arranges his body, its great girth, big fingers clumsily shuffling the paper.
The first page. Those swimming words. There are always so many of them. Each one has to be said, slowly and clearly as they have taught him, enunciated, the names, the dates, the allusions and metaphors. Gibberish! What do they matter? What do they prove? What can all that speech be used for? It’s talk, not money; can’t be deployed to build dams, nor power stations. Once paid, it can only be left there to rot, read and mocked by future generations. The same sentences endlessly repeated but always with some modification. Now with some filling out, now a little thinner, now simplified, darker and denser. The pauses that are included, the double slash: breathe here.
He exhales, puts down the paper. Rings for his coffee. A button that buzzes, conjures the secretary, scooting about her on those legs, the taut in the calf muscles, the cleft in her breast, the round mounds that she sometimes lets him fondle. Today they unnerve him. Somehow recall that thing he has forgotten. It hovers there, within reach, but he can’t touch it, can’t quite get his finger to grip…..
His secretary breaks his thoughts. Slips into the space between him and the thing. Is everything all right sir? His eyes moving slowly, away from her breasts, up to the hand on his shoulder. The hand that lays the tray, pours the coffee and milk. Fresh croissants! The pastry still steaming. No, he pushes it away. I don’t feel like any. Really you need to – No! He has become angry. Upsets the cup, stabs the knife in the butter. Leave me!
He returns to the speech. To be delivered at the coming Congress, Thursday, September 16, 11 am. Shit, he’s already late. The car is waiting. Its shiny black paintjob, chrome hubcaps reflecting, leave him blinking, an unfamiliar feeling, like getting stripped of his face or as if it hadn’t been his to begin with. Around him the ministers swarm. Advisers, generals, aides, all in chorus: our Chief, our Benefactor, the father of the new nation! The car with its tainted armour plate windows. They all climb in. The secretary next to him. She crosses her legs, makes a fold, takes out a pencil and scratches across a scrap of paper. Don’t forget to thank the Russians. She has written out their names, whole words without vowels, impossible letters. A bloody nightmare, he mutters to himself, stares out of the window, seeing only himself, an enormous mirrored bald head…
It is the biggest congress yet! Entering, the audience is shaking hands; they hug, kiss, the dignitaries sweep jackets up in their hands, gather skirts, they sit, plop! The Minister of Police, a nod to history: a grip on the white fedora’s brim, so jazzy! a little bow; Minister of Education, that damp glistening smile. State Security, cold and immobile, his head raised – the wire of his headset suspended, lifeless from his ear. On his other side, the Foreign Minister, constantly taking notes, a leather bound, luxury notebook. The Minister of Defence chatting carelessly with the mighty Minister for Industry, others from the upper echelon, clerks of the Cabinet, their entourages.
The Youth League President breaks through the crowd. Elders should sit first, but the young cadres these days, really! thrown respect to the dogs, the way they push forward. A line of yellow t-shirts bearing the President’s face. Fill up the first four rows, the seats nearest the stage. Greetings ring out, comrade, compadre. Everyone ready, waiting. All part of the ceremony. Sometimes for hours. They fill the time with songs from the old days, the hey days, the exile years. They stand together and sing with one mouth. On the stage, colours of the party, the curtain and their fringe – tints of crimson and gold. Finally the drapery is thrown open, a thick rope of gold swings loose, the Minister in the Presidency flicking the light switch, on and off then on again, tapping the mic
The room buzzes in response. The moment that they have all been waiting for.
Chairperson of the national council of provinces;
Deputy speaker of the national assembly and deputy chairperson;
Deputy president of the republic;
Honourable chief justice and all esteemed members of the judiciary;
Governor of the reserve bank;
Special international guests;
Former political prisoners and veterans…
He begins well. Voice, clear and resolute. A faint murmur. He silences them, Compatriots and friends, we are meeting against the backdrop of great turbulence… it is worse by page two. The economy is in tatters. The numbers fly through his mind like the balls in a lottery machine. He skips the list of economic indicators. The page after that. International affairs. Disaster looms in the form of deteriorating relations. The page is starting to blur, letters morph into obstacles, hazards and pit-falls to be avoided. His voice wavers. He stops and begins again. Tries to keep control against the impeding chaos. By page three it is useless. The documents are ruined, mixed up; headings, conclusion, and decisions mismatched, buried, lost. He stops and starts again.
We must work faster, harder and smarter; each word stretches out for fifteen minutes, losing its verbal form and becoming a sound, a sigh, a breath of air. He loses the place. He tries to find it with his finger. He blinks. His head is too hot. Sweat breaks on the dome, it accumulates, pours down his forehead. He reaches for his hanky, right pocket, can’t find it, left, no, neither the pocket nor the hanky. His hand comes away empty. He holds it up.
The crowd is silent. The pause grows. It overflows into irritated movements, rustled skirts, the creaking of bodies, clatter that fills the space reserved for his voice. Everyone is waiting. The security men, uneasy, circling like hyenas. The portraits of the Party’s founding members looking down on him, veiled contempt, faces tightening in their skulls, their eyes becoming round and bulged, ready to jump their sockets.
It is a clear voice that breaks the silence. Soft but powerful, it comes from the back. Then louder, resolute, a shout almost. The crowd turns, straining their necks, the dim auditorium, one cannot see clearly. A flashbulb pops. There! It is a young cadre. A boy. A nobody. Rank and file card carrying member. He stands. He vaults forward. His finger rises. Dances. It stops in the air. Stops to rest in the president corner. It accuses: But look, the President, he hasn’t got anything on!
The crowd’s head follows his finger, a gasp, the room inhaling. It’s true, yes! the president’s naked chest, protruding belly! His varicose veined legs! Those bulbous knees! The room is in uproar. Security men emerge out from covers and hidey holes. They charge the crowd. Head for the boy. His offending finger. Someone shouts, get it, quick, disarm him!
On stage the President stands. Suddenly stopped, nailed to the spot. His mind spins in multiple directions. He begins to turn, casts about in panic. His flight intercepted by security personnel. One of his personal body guards. The man’s face. Dark glasses. He blinks. He sees himself reflected in the convex plastic lenses. Sees his reflection remembering something. The thing he has forgotten. He sees himself squint, focusing. Accidentally he has raised a hand to his breast. His nipple is a hard knot. It points back at him. It accuses: the enormous presidential arse, the wilted dick. How cruel and purple it looks. A sudden stab of panic. His Adam’s apple bulges. Skin of his neck stretched taut. His heart dropping down, down, endlessly down. Feet reaching for the bottom —the floor, the red carpet….
No! Something deep inside him resists. This is no time to back down, to back out. Toward death, toward the chasm! With lips trembling, eye-lids swelling up, his rear rises. It turns. It faces the room. Its gaze traversing every member. It spreads and takes a breath. There is strength! And without pause he begins to dance, slowly, deliberately, bent legs stretched wide, his gigantic thighs rise up, his feet slap down. Dit-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah. He recalls the Russian rhythm perfectly this time. He gives himself over to the beat. His belly wobbles. His trembling fingers. They tug on the swinging Presidential penis. The dick doesn’t disappoint. On cue it rises. It grows and grows. It outsizes itself. Look! It is a quill or an arrowhead, the spear of the nation; the weapon with which he fought for freedom. The blade that battles the lion, the elephant, the leopard, all four-legged animals. It is a knife. Does it stab? It slices the air! It swings left and then right.
The vibration releases a wave of applause from the crowd. On its feet! They clap. Stamp their feet. The penis leans hungrily forward. The applause feeds it. It grows some more. Swollen! Prodigious! It bulges then steadies. Steeling itself against the crowd, it takes aim. An AK47! No, wait, it is a missile! Barrroom!… straight ahead! An explosion! An eruption! Such precision, it spurts forth. Word after word. Word perfect. Verse in a steaming milk – it rains upon the people. A new beginning… the seed of something, can you feel it? Even now it is gestating, it is growing, gaining momentum, fingers and toes, tiny limbs, legs! His feet are on the ground, his heart strong, listen, from this time on, I shall for fight: freedom from oppression, truth from corruption, fraternity, love! flying forth….
The people are silenced. Frozen, as if they have been shot. Bodies crumble back, collapsed down in seats. They sigh in admiration. They wait. On stage the President is panting. His penis suddenly quiet, subdued after sexual triumph, sated, it swings slowly between his legs.
The Emperor’s New Hose first published in The Evergreen Review No. 129, January 2012.