Could a painting bring thousands of people into the streets in your city?
In 2012, South African artist Brett Murray released a communist propaganda-inspired series that parodied the ruling ANC party. One painting would create a firestorm: president Jacob Zuma in the style of a famous Lenin poster – with his dick out.
Thousands flooded the streets, the painting was defaced, Murray was accused of racism and eventually forced to flee the country after repeated death threats.
Director Petter Ringbom’s remarkable Shield and Spear uses the controversy surrounding the painting as a window to explore the role of art in the new South Africa and introduce the artists, musicians, photographers and activists who are driving a vibrant creative revolution.
The first post-Apartheid “Rainbow” generation are defiantly refusing any constraints on their self-expression and pushing at the boundaries to expose the limits that still exist and the scars that are yet to heal in the Rainbow Nation.
As the film goes on release on iTunes, We spoke to Petter about the brightest lights in this exciting new wave of creativity and the state of South Africa two decades after Apartheid.
Why did you chose to focus on the controversy surrounding this one painting?
The story revolves around a painting called ‘The Spear’ which kicked off a major affair in South Africa in 2012, involving vandalism, street protests, a lawsuit and death threats. This somewhat harmless caricature of president Jacob Zuma with his dick hanging out [referring to his many alleged infidelities] was the trigger that released this fury, in part because the artist Brett Murray was a white South African. There are festering issues around racism in the country. Even though Brett was an anti-Apartheid activist back in the day, they were quick to claim the painting was racist because of the colour of his skin. It exposed a number of issues around freedom expression which is a theme explored throughout the film.
Check out this Huck exclusive clip where The Brother Moves On talk about the limits placed on youth political engagement in South Africa.
How did you explore the idea of freedom of expression?
I focussed on characters who deal with these issues on a more personal level. For example, The Smarteez fashion collective from Soweto are part of the Rainbow Generation who came of age after Apartheid and they express this freedom through the clothes they wear and design. They were raised in a quite conservative environment and fashion for them is in part a rebellion against their parents’ values. Religion and conservatism are almost like a sense of security in certain communities and they adhere to strict rules about your appearance and your faith in god. But now these guys are interacting with international trends and experimenting with wearing dresses and things like that, which are frowned upon.
Xander Ferreira, who goes by the stage name Gazelle, was raised in a traditional, conservative and very racist Afrikaans environment. For him, freedom of expression is about rebelling against that and dressing up as this image of an African dictator and parading around stage, playing with identity. Freedom of expression is a very personal thing.
What role do artists play in today’s South Africa?
Artists in general are more political there than anywhere else I’ve been to. People are thinking and talking about politics a lot more than the US, for example. In the US, being political as an artist is kind of frowned upon, it’s not considered important. I think it’s refreshing to see people who can engage in politics in a very overt way and still be important and relevant. I think the Young people, especially, are responding to that. I mean, how many bands in the US do you know that are political and have a message? If they are they become labeled. There’s no way a painting would make thousands of people take to the streets of New York so this story is a perfect example of the impact art can have in South Africa.
I don’t want to overstate its role, because if you’re a struggling person in a township you don’t necessarily concern yourself on a day-to-day level with what artists are doing. But I do think they are carrying on a legacy that started during Apartheid, when culture played an important role in the struggle. Artists will keep pushing and raising these issues. What I think is interesting with the film is that art becomes a very engaging way to paint a picture of a country, it becomes approachable.
Which other artists you featured in the film have had a real impact?
Zanele Muholi, is a photographer, artist and activist who focusses on LGBT issues. She’s really at the forefront of that work, in a country with a big problem with hate crimes, like what they call corrective rape – really rough shit. Corrective rape is carried out by men who are threatened by lesbians, so they lash out, rape and brutalise women. Zanele has a real impact in that community, galvanising people and raising debate around those issues; not only in South Africa but internationally. A few years ago she did a show in Johannesburg and the Minister of Culture at the time was supposed to open the exhibition but refused so long as Zanele’s photos were included. She said her photos went against nation building, they were anti-patriotic.
“Being able to discuss these issues openly has to happen for the country to heal and function as a society.”
What did the reaction to the painting reveal about how far South Africa has come since Apartheid? What problems still exist?
People have told me that the positive thing that came out of it was the conversation that happened. Being able to discuss these issues openly has to happen for the country to heal and function as a society. On one hand, people were saying that depicting a black man with his penis hanging out is playing with his dignity, so I can understand how people would be upset and react the way they did.
On the other hand, Jacob Zuma has earned that privilege by, for example, being on trial for rape himself, stating that you can cure AIDS by showering after having sex, and being the leader of a country which has the highest level of reported rapes in the world. As president he has a responsibility to lead by example and tackle these issues.
South Africa is a free country but it’s complicated. In some ways, twenty years in not a long time if you’ve lived under repression for hundreds of years. Twenty years is not enough time to build the dreamed-of “Rainbow Nation” but it could have and should have been better – it just hasn’t lived up to the ideals Mandela put forward. The day-to-day life of a poor South African hasn’t changed in a radical way but on a fundamental level it has, with freedom of movement etc. It’s obviously an amazing thing but there are a lot of issues that haven’t been fixed.
The debate around this painting couldn’t have happened before, but on the other hand it’s unacceptable that an artist has to go in to hiding because of repeated death threats.
How did the ANC politically manipulate the controversy around the painting?
The ANC are very good at using race to their advantage or using issues like ‘The Spear’ as a rallying point for the masses. There is still an issue of black vs white and they are using that to galvanise troops. As long as that exists the ANC can stay in power and do what they want. There isn’t a real alternative yet.
“In the US, people like to think Mandela’s election was the happy ending they wanted. … It’s kind of disillusioning to know what is really going on.”
What drew you to this story?
I met Xander Ferreira in New York [where Petter now lives]. We became friends and talked about what was happening in South Africa, the storm around the painting and I became interested in exploring the idea of freedom and what it means now.
On a personal level, my interest carries through from my childhood in Sweden, when the Scandinavian countries were engaged in the anti-Apartheid struggle, probably more so that any other countries outside Africa. I remember the protests, etc. so that’s maybe why I gravitated towards exploring this issue.
In the US, people like to think Mandela’s election was the happy ending they wanted. The ANC have tried to promote this idea of the Rainbow Nation and it’s become the slogan they push to the world. It’s kind of disillusioning to know what is really going on. It’s something people don’t want to deal with: ‘It’s such a nice ending, just leave it there.’