The Spear of the Nation: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/artists/brettmurray

I am deeply saddened by the recent events surrounding the Brett Murray solo art exhibition, Hail To The Thief II. This exhibition was hijacked by every possible and impossible pressure group, political party and affiliation to score points in the public eye and to whip up sympathy and loyalty for their own agendas. How sad that this exhibition was commandeered by so many causes, grudges and political motives as we can find in South Africa.

I believe that there are many stories to this exhibition and it could be understood in many ways. I would like to highlight only a few important cultural issues which I see: In most black societies’ a black man’s genitals should never be exposed. It is private but also probably the most graphic symbol of his power and superior position in our patriarchal society in terms of gender relations. It begs the question: was this offensive to Mr. Zuma and his supporters – yes I am sure it is to many. Was it insensitive and risky to use this image? Of cause it was, but can you think of ANY other image which would provoked as much response and attention?

Is this racist? To a certain degree some might see it as such. However, in my mind the only racial aspect is that many white (and black) South Africans) did not realized how sexually repressed we are as a nation and how differently we interpret sexual images. Our almost bewilderment about the different responses by the respective racial/cultural groups of South Africa still speaks about a deep sense of mistrust and lack of understanding of each others’ cultures and ways of making meaning and therefore neither white or black could appreciate the immense reaction to this. I think many of us were surprised but the outrage this painting caused – sadly outraged for very different reasons than one would have hoped for.

Did Mr. Zuma benefit from this circus and media frenzy – I believed he did, as now both his enemies and supporters are rallying behind him to defend his dignity and honor. Is this about Mr. Zuma’s private sex life, multiple wives and mistresses and illegitimate children? Well maybe to a certain degree, but in my mind this was not social commentary on sexual morality as such, but rather on gender morality and political power. When I speak of political power I am not referring to political parties but to power relations. Allow me to explain myself. The media and all other parties involved mostly focused on the Spear of the Nation painting in terms of exposed and vulgar sexuality without really contemplating the context of the exhibition and commentary thereof, as a whole.

To my mind this exhibition was about the abuse of power fuelled by a psyche of entitlement and corruption that has become almost endemic to most power structures in South Africa. It would also seem as many have a sense of retribution – this is now our time to have the good life! Maybe such a state of mind reflects the idiom which states: The oppressed becomes the worst oppressors. For me this state of mind is depicted by the changed position of the raised fist which used to be symbol to proclaiming freedom and strength. In Murray’s painting the fist is now in the position of a fist bounding on a surface – an action which I read as “we demand and  control”. This represents a subtle shift from strength and solidarity to that of power and control. The raised fist no longer represents taking a stand against injustice and freedom for all, but instead that of a demand of loyalty that will be achieved by control and force, whatever it takes. The control and force are supported and established by money!

I believe that this depiction of the coat of arms of the ANC crossed over by with a notice “For Sell /SOLD” comments on money being now the policy maker. I believe that this is a reflection about the ANC having lost the vision and spirit of the Freedom Charter, as it would seem as if it has become an organisation which is willing to re-write history in terms of the highest bidder’s agenda. If so, how incredibly sad and what more opt comment to this than “Biko is dead”!

I see most of the paintings as being about the view of  many South-Africans, who believe numerous comrades of the new regime became obsessed with self-enrichment, power and self-justification in the face of millions of poor people and a youth with so very little promise of any future.

Sadly, as a nation we look at this exhibition and all that we can see is a red penis exposed to the world – shaming and insulting of Mr. Zuma’s dignity and position. Have we become such a sex-obsessed society that we cannot see anything else? How is it possible that the media and most of the South African public zoomed in on the exposed genitals of a man without ever having a conversation with the artist about this “indecent exposure”? What should this conversation have been about you might ask? Well I would love to know what, according to the artist’s understanding, is happening in our society that he felt the need to use this image to make a social comment about abusive power, corruption and lost vision.

However, if we insist to make this painting about sex, let’s do so. Let us look the sexual legacy of our country. Rapes and gender based violence – highest in the world. Need I say: rape is not about sex but about power, which brings me full circle: back to power and the abuse of power. To my mind this exhibition had very little to do with sexual immorality, indecent exposure, sex or lust, but about power and the misappropriation and abuse thereof. Is it only me who can see this message of Brett Murray exhibition or did I got lost in translation or interpretation? Is this about sex or about abusive power? You decide.


Discourses regarding penis size

Within a patriarchal ideology men are often portrayed as the hunter with power and physical ability as the mark of a man. Since biblical times a man’s worth was often linked to his penis size and ability to perform sexually. The discourse of penile penetration for satisfactory sexual intercourse is often associated with another discourse: namely, that penis size – and by implication the size of the erection – is directly coupled to the pleasure afforded. Erections have always been important to men: the discourse regarding the size of the male penis was circulating even in biblical times. In 1 Kings 12:10, King Rehoboam boasts that his little finger is thicker than his father’s waist to indicate that he – Rehoboam – was a more capable and powerful king than his father. The Hebrew word that was translated as ‘little finger’ could have referred to his penis, as in antiquity a man’s penis size was seen as an indication of his power and abilities.

Dr Abraham Morgentaler (2009), Professor of Urology at Harvard Medical School and a medical doctor who specializes in male reproductive and sexual health, also comments on the discourse of penis size. He states that man’s obsession with penis size is nothing new. Ancient drawings in the ruins of Pompeii provide clear evidence of this obsession:

“Painted on the wall, with only minor decay since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in the year 79 AD, was the picture of a nobleman with an enormous erect penis, the length and girth larger than a man’s leg, placed on an ancient scale, with sacks of gold balanced on the other side. Some time ago I rediscovered that image on the Internet and have occasionally used it in lectures, with the quip that men have always viewed a large penis as worth its weight in gold” (Morgentaler 2009).

Closely linked to these ideas of strength and virility are the dominant discourses which see a man’s sexuality as instinctive and natural, as well as the idea that men are always ready for sex. Research shows that erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common problem: up to 52% of men older than forty are affected by it. Moreover, 50% of men will at one stage or another struggle with impotency due to varied factors. Finally, when men have challenges regarding their sexual function it influences their self confidence as well as their self esteem. I suggest that if discourses which link maleness to sexual functioning are internalised, sexual challenges will have an exponentially greater effect. The implications of these discourses are that if a man does not conform and perform to these standards, he is ‘unnatural’ or not a man.

Patriarchal discourses which symbolise men with strength and power can be very damaging to the male sexual experience. Discourses of strength and power portray men as unfailing. Therefore, if a man should ‘fail’ sexually, he has ‘failed’ as a man. Since this implication is often too overwhelming for men to acknowledge, many men find it almost impossible to speak about their sexual challenges. It is not only men that are exposed to discourse regarding male sexual functioning: many women have also internalised these discourses regarding male potency.

Extract adjusted from my doctoral study: Spies, N 2011. Exploring and storying Protestant Christian women/s experiences living in sexually unhappy marriages. DTh thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria.