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Brett Murray by Brett Murray (Jacana, 2014)

By Sean O'Toole on 14 October

Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray

Gabrielle Guy
Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray, . Photograph

The black and white poster for Brett Murray’s first solo exhibition ‘Satirical Sculptures’ in Johannesburg, held at the Market Theatre Gallery in 1989 and long a fixture on my bedroom walls afterwards: presented a sculpture of a policeman sinking in a pair of boots many sizes too big for him. The thought underpinning the work, which measured 61 cm in height and looked as if it had been burnished with black shoe polish, didn’t need much explaining. Squat, cartoonish figures in uniform clutching instruments of violence were stalking the land.

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My conception of South African art as something vital, risky and unambiguously immersed in the present, owes a great deal to Murray’s 1989 exhibition. It wasn’t singularly the work, made in completion of his Master’s degree exhibition at the University of Cape Town in 1988, that fascinated me. Even if he isn’t the tallest pencil in the jam tin, Murray projected an aura of raffish cool, access and danger circa 1989. He was a cousin of the impossibly handsome and louche painter Wayne Barker, hung out with the nudist and sculptor Barendt de Wet, had played in a punk band with James Phillips, and was openly a lefty not a liberal. In short, Murray made Preller, Pierneef and Battiss – Pretoria’s other famous artists – look stuffy and dated.

But that was all very long ago. 'I am no longer a dissident, a young anarchist, a subversive agitator rattling the cages of the establishment,' quipped Murray at the Cape Town launch of his eponymous new book in January. 'I am the establishment. The Che Guevara of the Suburbs.' A gorgeously designed 298-page doorstopper, Brett Murray tells the story of the artist’s journey from Pretoria schoolboy in blackface to committed husband, father and bête noire of a venal potentate who built himself a tuinhuis in the Midlands. 

Much like his book, Murray’s hello-and-thank-you-for-coming-speech at the Book Lounge dwelled at length on The Spear (2012), his pop painting of President Jacob Zuma emulating Lenin in the poster ‘Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live Forever!’, albeit with penis exposed. How could it not? It has been, wanted or not, a defining moment in the artist’s career so far – his self-described 'dick joke' sponsoring a national debate about leadership, ethics, citizen rights and, somewhat imperfectly, the role of art in a balkanised society.

If the measure of a good life is the quality of the stories you have in your backpack when you kick-off into the afterlife, Murray can rest easy. His backpack runneth over. At his book launch he dipped into this imaginary sack and shared a few choice selections. He spoke, comically, as is his manner, about his mother appraising him on the phone about his father, dead on a bed next to her. 'Guess who dad looks like now? Homer Simpson!' But mostly he shared stories about The Spear, a work that is now also the subject of feature-length documentary, ‘Shield and Spear’, by New York filmmaker Petter Ringbom.

'A few months ago I was having my blood taken by a large grumpy and officious looking Xhosa woman for a middle age prostate issue,' Murray told his audience at the Book Lounge. While plunging the needle into his arm, he said, the nurse asked if he was 'that' Brett Murray. 'What would you do? My poepol puckered and I denied.' It was pointless. 'Yes, I am him.' The nurse guffawed, smiled broadly and told Murray she had just been talking about his painting with her nursing friends, who she promptly invited to come meet the artist. 'They were delighted to meet me and we went on a sad and funny tirade against the powers that be,' said Murray, adding that his medical encounter ended with 'huge bosomy hugs.'

Murray’s painting, or at least the exaggerated attention it generated, achieved many things. It filled his personal inbox with hate mail. It prompted Murray, a reformed party boy, to drink his first whisky in 12 years. It also made the president’s advocate, Gcina Malindi, a former Robben Islander, buckle and cry real tears – raw emotion that Murray acknowledges. 'He was caught between a rock and a hard case,' Murray said at his book launch. 'He has my utmost respect for the sacrifices he made on all of our behalves.'

Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray

Gabrielle Guy
Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray , Photograph,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spear also achieved other things. Months after the brouhaha a (black) judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal emailed the artist to express his solidarity. 'I have to say that the conduct of some of the temporary custodians of the governing party over your painting was nothing less than shameful,' wrote the unnamed judge. 'They, not you, have lost their way.' It is a point forcefully argued by Njabulo Ndebele, whose 2012 City Press essay is reprinted in Murray’s book. Jolted by his initial encounter with the painting in a daily newspaper, Ndebele, a generous intellectual and unapologetic commentator, 'dug deep' into himself to assess his confused mixture of feelings. 

'This got me looking at other artworks by Murray on exhibition with The Spear,' writes Ndebele. 'I saw the broader context and understood why I was not offended. My capacity to be offended had been eroded cumulatively and decisively by Zuma’s conduct before he became president of the ANC and president of South Africa, and ever since.'

Ndebele wasn’t the only editorialist to weigh in circa the winter of 2012. Nearly all the pundits and Rodin-like thinkers who animate South Africa’s congested media space had something to say. Their words leant context and insight to the hectoring sophistry of a threatened political elite whose response to a brazen painting was a ‘strictly come dancing’ street party. 

Murray’s silence at the time, like that of Marcel Duchamp a generation or two earlier, was notable. 'I remained silent throughout the ordeal because I instinctively thought that this would be wise,' he stated at his book launch. 'I also just wanted to listen.' And read. In a bibliography appearing at the end of his book, Murray lists, by year, authors who have written about his work. His 2012 list is instructive: Karen Macgregor (New York Times), Jonathan Jansen (Moneyweb), Pierre de Vos (constitutionallyspeaking.co.za), Sandile Memela (Art South Africa), Mondli Makhanya (Sunday Times), Rebecca Davies (Daily Maverick) and Nick Dawes (Mail & Guardian).

If art has a tenuous purchase in the public mind, a fact plainly revealed in the dwindling cultural pages in most newspapers, Murray’s painting forcefully reclaimed the media commons on behalf of all artists. Wonderful. But his 2012 bibliography is also revealingly selective – censorious, if you want to push things. In June 2012, a few days before Ndebele’s article appeared, political philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote about The Spear for the Cape Times; in his op-ed the soccer-loving Joburg resident took a dim view on the representational politics of Murray’s painting. 'To pretend to critique contemporary forms of patriarchy with the categories used in the past to dehumanise the black man is, at best, stupid – a cruel lack of imagination,' wrote Mbembe.

This criticism, which hinges on readings of the black body as a 'profane body', is noticeably avoided as a point of engagement in the four essays that open Murray’s book. Rather, for Steven Dubin – a New York based art historian who has written about the culture wars that gripped his country in the 1980s, as well as those that have marked the last two decades of South African history – Murray is an impish trickster whose moral compass is true. Dubin’s essay offers a measured recapitulation of The Spear controversy.

'The Spear emerged at a moment when the cultural and political climate was highly combustible,' he fairly states. 'A match – whether intentionally or inadvertently dropped under such conditions – held tremendous explosive potential.' At times dry and concise, Dubin’s essay offers a necessary statement of the facts. Unlike Murray, he does not shoot from the hip. Where Dubin describes The Spear controversy as a 'classic case of the politics of diversion', Murray, during his soapbox moment in the Book Lounge, expressed it thus: 'The Kafkaesque events that unfolded regarding The Spear seemed to have been scripted by the Marx Brothers on acid. Not Harpo, Chico, Groucho and Zeppo, but rather Jacob, Blade, Jackson and Gwede.'

Like Dubin, whose essay parses the veiled intentions underpinning the public furore, journalist and critic Ivor Powell’s essay also lingers on the idea of intention as a way of negotiating the 'knotty problematics' of an art that purposefully mocks, satirises and provokes. Murray, writes Powell, 'asked for it – at least courted the circumstances in which his artwork was wrenched into the real-life and real-time political frays.' His task as an artist now is to 'look that particular tiger in the eye' if he is to maintain his trajectory.

Murray’s decision to invite Powell to write about his work is fitting. Powell’s 2002 catalogue essay for Murray’s ‘White Like Me’ exhibition is a marvellous piece of critical commentary. More tellingly, though, Powell’s presence further dramatises the extent to which the Marx Brothers are orchestrating the terms of engagement in the years following the Polokwane putsch of 2007. Powell, a gifted art critic whose essay highlights the uneven nature Murray’s 'plastic solutions', is also the man who authored the infamous 2007 Special Browse Mole report, a leaked intelligence document in which it was alleged that Zuma’s presidential bid was covertly being funded by Libyan and Angolan sources. He is, in short, not a friend of the presidency. 

Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray

Gabrielle Guy
Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray , Photograph,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In May 2009, speaking at a rally in Khayelitsha, Blade Nzimande described Powell, a former Scorpion’s senior investigator, as 'a professional information peddler' and 'threat to the security of the state.' In his essay, Powell directly engages his accuser, describing Nzimande as 'prosecutor-in-chief' of the anti-Spear campaign, one that had nothing to do with art. Once the Alliance weighed in on the issue of The Spear, argues Powell, it stopped being about art: 'The Spear entered the compromised space of political discourse, a space in which things or propositions are as they are used, or as they are held, and not in any definitive way as their makers intended them.'

Murray is acutely aware of this fact, but also the inadmissibility of doing and saying nothing as a counter strategy. During his Book Lounge speech he quoted author Hanif Kureishi: 'You can never know what your words may turn out to mean for yourself or someone else; or what the world they make will be like. Anything could happen. The problem with silence is that we know exactly what it will be like.'

It is both redundant and fatuous to call Murray a political artist. Like his contemporary, sculptor Jane Alexander, his art is concerned with power: its uses and abuses, sure, but also its ability to stunt and distort, human lives as much as the truth. Misshapen, undersized and naked figures populate both their oeuvres. In an artist-written caption accompanying photos of his squat little men – a soldier, butcher, drunk soldier, porky artist and naked monarch – from his Master’s portfolio, Murray highlights the place of personal biography in his notionally political art.

'My degree was completed, in part, as a way to avoid conscription into the South African Defence Force,' he writes. 'The End Conscription Campaign, a movement to end the compulsory conscription of white youth into the apartheid army, was a significant political force for change and one with which I immediately identified when it was launched in 1983. The cultural activism in which I was involved outside academic research inevitably impacted on my studio work,' writes Murray. 'This conflation of the personal with the political informed my work then and continues to do so now.' 

Murray’s book includes an essay by Roger van Wyk that revisits the artist’s early years as a silkscreen revolutionary with the Gardens Media Group, a leftist artist collective involved in making anti-apartheid T-shirts, posters and stickers. It lends a historical context to Murray’s satire, which is longstanding, scabrous, unambiguous, distorting, concerned with text as much as figures, and – in the manner of his extensive new career monograph – marked by an artisanal fussiness that evidences the artist’s delight in making things. 

In his contribution, artist and critic Michael Smith deliberates on the broader meaning of Murray’s provocations as artist and middle-aged white guy with a stoutgat sense of humour and purpose. 'Maybe the position of the satirist, with a keen eye for bluster and bullshit, represents a form of engaged citizenship,' proposes Smith. 'A prolonged resistance through images, as has characterised Murray’s oeuvre, is a worthy riposte to political and social stupidity.' I agree with most of what Smith states, although I’m not sure about his adjective 'worthy'. I would have preferred 'necessary', partly to avoid insinuations that Murray’s work is unimpeachable. It isn’t, as the public response to his most famous work suggests.

During the first of six Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 2012, William Kentridge remarked on the distinction between making and looking, 'between the artist as maker and the artist as viewer.' Making, he elaborated, was a fraught enterprise for an artist. 'Once launched,' offered Kentridge, 'an image, an event, a discus, cannot be called back. It has the pressure of perfect memory. It has the same inevitability as the claim that no keystroke is ever lost, that once done, something cannot be undone.' The Spear, by no means Murray’s brightest achievement as an artist, cannot be undone, notwithstanding the intentions of amateur censors with Builders Warehouse paintbrushes. Its irreversibility lends the spirited arguments contained in this smartly designed book their vitality, as much as it hints at their redundancy. But isn’t that the fate of all writing about visual images?

Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray

Gabrielle Guy
Photograph of Brett Murray by Brett Murray , Photograph,