With South Africa’s general elections in the news near and far, Culture Connect SA’s art tour in Parliament has me contemplating the significance of political art in our society. Given the country’s current political climate, this controversial discipline is as relevant and thriving as ever. At our most recent Parliament Tour, one Culture Connector posed an interesting question: “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. Only days ago such art activism was seen in New York’s Whitney by the Decolonize This Place protestors. 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 is currently experiencing its own decolonisation movement. In 2015, students from the University of Cape Town endeavoured to remove the statue of colonist Cecil John Rhodes from its prominent and commemorative position in front of the university. The movement became known as #RhodesMustFall and resulted in the statue being moved to a secret location. During the protests, some of the paintings from the university’s historic collection were burnt which divided 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 next Biennale opens soon (11 May – 24 November) with 90 national participants and – at the last count – 83 artists largely representing their countries. Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tracey Rose and Mawande Ka Zenzile are South Africa’s featured artists. Surely this, the contemporary art world’s “Olympics”, is one of the best places to experience the political art of today in all its nuances.