Resurrecting Saartjie Baartman: iLIVE
The savage and the barbaric. Thick lips. The brute and the illiterate.
It is difficult for me to look at the portrait of Jacob Zuma and not have such stereotypes, such images, evoked in one’s mind.
On one end, I am always convinced of the need for artistic freedom and expression, as an avenue for making statements, political or otherwise. From the aesthetic, to the pragmatic, my little levels of art appreciation tell me that art is an indispensable vehicle for speaking back to power. Coming from a country like Zimbabwe, where renowned writer Tsitsi Dangarembga was cited as bemoaning the political polarisation that was hindering artistic expression, I have some comprehension of what it means to not have artistic space.
On the other end, I also occupy an intercalary position, where I have, since being in South Africa, been made acutely aware of the racial connotations that accompany many things, or that are deemed to do so, yet I also strongly believe in the power of critique, without being muddled by racialising everything.
What does it mean to have artistic licence or freedom, and how do we draw the line between what is artistic critique, and what is outright obscene and grotesque, to borrow from Achille Mbembe. To say that the portrait of Jacob Zuma is artistic freedom taken too far may sound to many like a cautionary tale of the imminent curtailing of freedoms, as symbolised by the Secrecy Bill.
To also embrace this "art" is to also ignore the respect and dignity that should be afforded, if not to the person of Jacob Zuma, to his office. Whatever his fallibilities, should we abuse our positions of privilege as artists, or as citizens, to portray people in any way we want?
Now I am not one to give a critical appreciation of the "art" for I am not close to a connoisseur in such matters. The painter and the buyer maybe understand better the thrust of the portrait. I am interested in how, if at all, such an image is part of the broader colonial/post-colonial gaze on representations of Africa and the African body, or if it's just Jacob Zuma and his willy out there for public consumption.
The story of Saartjie Baartman quickly comes to mind. Exhibited for all to see, the abnormalities of African female sexuality. The obscene and the grotesque. The qualities of a sub-human species. The body of suffering and humiliation, the body exhibited for the gaze of the privileged.
The ideas that were the foregrounding for such exhibitionism and exoticism found adequate expression in the colonial project, in indirect rule and assimilation, in apartheid. The obscene and grotesque body was only fit to occupy positions of subservience, and subjugation, not fit to govern, or lead. Not even fit to be accorded basic human dignity. This is history, or is it? We need to, or have moved on, but have we?
There will be quarters saying that post-colonial politics, and the leaders thereof, in Africa, are the ones who have been at the forefront of denigrating the very people who they claim to have liberated. I cannot agree more.
The body of the African, further to being mutilated by slavery, colonialism, and the attendant forms of oppression and marginalisation, is still subject to neo-oppression from the post-colonial masters, our very own "saviours". Afflicted by poverty, hunger, disease, as well as ideological and repressive state apparatus, this body, my body, and your body, have been bodies of suffering as well as humiliation. The fattened body remains the body of power, of corruption, greed and all forms of glutton.
Where Jacob Zuma stands in all this, the South African electorate, hopefully, can judge for themselves. There have been allegations of corruption, of rape, and yes, he has many wives. Yet he remains the president of ALL South Africans, those who love him, and those who don’t. Yet still, he remains president of one of the most powerful economies in Africa, barring all the challenges it is facing. Jacob Zuma, the ANC, the DA, whoever, and whichever political person or organisation, are definitely not sacred cows. You just have to look to Zimbabwe to see the consequences of political polarisation and the dearth of constructive critique, especially through art.
Cognisant of the fact that the political landscape in South Africa today hinges on shifting sands, and that there are already cries of speech and expression being muffled, how do we receive a portrait of the president of a nation, with his willy out, even selling for so much? Humour, yes, we need it. Critique. Yes it is necessary. Bordering on the obscene and grotesque? This is where the bone of contention.
If our responses to the obscene and the grotesque (in colonialism, apartheid, etc) have been informed by our elevation as being more human, and forward looking, where do we place this portrait of Zuma? This portrait is in an environment where violent masculinities are rife, where videos of gang rape go viral! (Zapiro, someone?) Who then, or what then is obscene grotesque, the portrait, the people behind it, or South Africa today?
Accusations are often made that some take life too seriously, that they need to get off the high horses, and laugh. Indeed, let some laugh. Some cry, some will cry. In all the humour and laughter, and the sadness and tears that fill this obscene and grotesque atmosphere, what does Jacob Zuma's willy mean to us? Is he another version of Saartjie Baartman, minus the labia, and the behind, and the boobs? Is he on exhibition for us to laugh, ridicule and humiliate? Are we not laughing at ourselves, as if it’s not funny enough?
The body being exhibited may no longer be just the body of the voluptuous African female, or the willy of Jacob Zuma. It is a South African body, and maybe, an African body. Yes, yes, I know, many will not want to have Jacob Zuma’s body, keep your bodies, that is fine. Who are we ridiculing and humiliating? Like Bitterkomix, and Tintin in the Congo, is this just a representation of a certain reality, of a Jacob Zuma who, in the public eye, or in the eye of the privileged is obscene and grotesque.
I am not sure if this portrait is art or not. It does revolt me, but then, that is me. The willy of a president is not such game stuff for public consumption. But then who knows, that is what the artist wanted?
Maybe we should just laugh and forget. The obscene and the grotesque are part of our everyday lives. Bodies are on exhibition all the time, public or private, from the ramp to the morgue. No worries.