At a recent Parliament Tour, one Culture Connector asked: “Isn’t all art political?” This transported me back to my days as an art history student in the 1980s at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where I first saw art through the prism of Marxism, feminism and semiotics.
Just over 100 years ago, artists calling themselves Dada staged disruptive, experimental interventions against the violence and horror of the First World War. In the 1960s the Fluxus group made art to shock and change perceptions. In 1976, the iconic image of a dying teenage boy named Hector Peterson sent shockwaves across the globe and re-invigorated the international community’s attention toward the brutality of Apartheid.
South Africa’s decolonisation movement starting in 2015, students from the University of Cape Town got the the statue of colonist Cecil John Rhodes from its prominent and commemorative position in front of the university. During protests, some of the paintings from the university’s historic collection were burnt dividing public opinion worldwide.
Three years earlier, Brett Murray’s The Spear made national headlines. I’ve never witnessed art causing such a gigantic fuss and furore! The media had a field day as South Africa’s then-president Jacob Zuma was depicted in painting with his genitals exposed. Murray received lawsuits and even death threats, however, this was not the first time Murray sparked controversy and be the target of fervent public criticism. In 1998, Murray’s bronze sculpture titled Africa won the Cape Town Public Sculpture competition. The artwork’s unveiling outside St George’s Mall (a few steps away from the train station) was delayed as some felt that the image of the classic sculptural figure was debased by the Bart Simpson heads that covered it.
I had two other Brett Murray surprises recently. Despite Culture Connect’s many tours in Parliament, I never knew about his large artwork hanging at its 120 Plein Street foyer titled Yesterday and Tomorrow (2005). Also, in spite of the outrage over The Spear, Brett’s video work, Triumph, was included in South Africa’s 2015 Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the contemporary art world’s “Olympics”, and one of the best places to experience political art in many of its nuances.
Image above is from the Keiskamma Tapestry’s first democratic elections, 1994; image courtesy of Parliament.