THE BIG READ: Art has the right to be provocative
One does not know for how long one will be allowed an independent view in South Africa, so I am enjoying mine while I still have it.
People have been up in arms both about Brett Murray's painting, The Spear, and my view on it.
I have the utmost respect for the president. I don't know Jacob Zuma as an individual, but I have heard that he is a lovely man with a good sense of humour and a sharp intellect. He deserves, as do all South Africans, to be treated with dignity and respect.
I confess that I was shocked - shok-ett-ted - when I saw the painting. Our president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, genitals exposed. Gasp! Sharp intake of breath! Eyes Wide! Haibo!
Zuma has a reputation for philandering, frequent marrying, collecting girlfriends, chowing chamber maids and fathering illegitimate children, so an artist could be forgiven for seeing him as a man led by the long fella.
Many people had a violently angry response to seeing the painting. This is good. Art should elicit a strong response. Therein lies its success. Picasso's Les Demoiselle d'Avignon provoked hysteria in its day. It was painted in 1907. It portrayed five nude prostitutes. There was outrage. Now the piece is world famous, highly acclaimed and would be a coveted lot at the auctioneers. It's Picasso.
And it is not the first time a penis has been thrust in the faces of the art-appreciating public. In early Greek and Roman sculpture the penis is proudly present.
I do not pretend to understand Murray's painting. It seems that this artist is making a political statement. At first impression I would imagine it being about power, virility, and dominance. That is what the penis symbolises, is it not? Violence, perhaps.
Zuma is portrayed as Lenin was once portrayed. The characterised similarity of the intellectual Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and the African capitalist, populist revolutionary is that not unflattering?
Even Zuma concedes, though in objection, that he is being portrayed as a womaniser and philanderer. I chuckle at that being his defence in court. What is a philanderer? It is a man who has many sexual encounters. What is a womaniser? It is a man who likes many women
"It is un-African," they say. "We don't do that in African culture," they say. I agree. It is un-African. We do not do that in African culture. I agree. It is disrespectful in any culture. But art is not bound by culture. The artist colours outside the lines, pushes the boundaries; the artist dares. Art is a medium of free expression and intellectual discourse. It seeks to please no one. It seeks to express, sometimes to galvanise, always to inspire.
It's interesting that in all the outrage at the effrontery of the artist, there seem to be few whoaddressed the art. Few asked the question: "What is this painting saying?"
In my view, the president should not be allowed to take artists to court. I think he should (in this instance) interrogate the piece and ask himself if there could be a motive beyond insolence for this depiction.
When he is satisfied that it is not malice, it is art, he should return to his office and run the nation. He should build a few thousand schools and hospitals, houses, communities and roads. When he is done he should take another look at how artists choose to illustrate him. He might find that by then he is too busy to care what artists do.
- Tambo is the daughter of late struggle icon, Oliver Tambo. This is an edited version of a piece from her blog tt13.