Brett Murray breaks his silence on that 'Spear' painting

26 February 2017 - 02:00 By Mary Corrigall
Artist Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ painting sparked such an outcry he ended up on antidepressants.
Artist Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ painting sparked such an outcry he ended up on antidepressants.
Image: MALIBONGWE TYILO

The artist provoked the wrath of President Jacob Zuma and his followers during ‘The Spear’ debacle in 2012. Ahead of a new exhibition, Murray reflects on the contentious artwork, writes Mary Corrigall

Did Brett Murray regret painting The Spear? It has been five years since that question was on everyone's lips and, sitting across from him at his studio in Woodstock, Cape Town, it remains pertinent.

The furore that mushroomed like an atom bomb around this contentious painting exhibited in 2012 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg as part of the Hail to the Thief II exhibition was the stuff of a true-life drama. Never had a single artwork attracted so much interest and discussion.

Nor had it been rejected so vehemently by its subject, President Jacob Zuma, who tried to take his then gallery (he is now with the Everard Read) to court to have the artwork removed from display. His followers marched on the gallery.

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The newspaper that published the image came under fire too.

Copies of it were burnt in public denunciations, and the Film and Publications Board ordered that the painting shouldn't be viewed by anyone under 16. Eventually, it was vandalised and removed from public display.

Throughout, Murray was silent. He didn't grant interviews, offer any rebuttals, defend or explain the artwork. Some respected his decision, believing the image's reception depended on a viewer's perspective rather than the artist's intentions, but others were frustrated by it - they wanted him to assert his point of view.

In a way his silence presented such a big vacuum that other writers felt they had to fill it. William Kentridge, Pierre de Vos, Jonathan Jansen and Pieter-Dirk Uys were among those responding. All opinionistas (or taxi drivers) had their say.

Murray enjoyed the debate, but vitriol culminating in death threats against him and his family took its toll on him psychologically.

"It was an interesting dialogue, but it should have happened in a more measured way," he says.

Murray was too traumatised by events to engage with the press or public during The Spear debacle. He existed in "a haze of antidepressants and Calmettes".

He was also afraid that he might add fuel to the fire.

"One angry soundbite or one misquote and I would have sounded like a d**k," he says.

As if on his way to the beach or back from it, he is wearing shorts and flip-flops during the interview. This reflects his down-to-earth nature, but also speaks of the way he immerses himself in making art.

Murray reiterates his love of the craft of making art, saying it gives his "one-liners soul". It's a feature borne out in his work. The giant Again Again double bull figure, which drew attention at the recent Cape Town Art Fair and will be the main feature of that titular exhibition due to open at the Everard Read and Circa galleries in Johannesburg next week, is slick and formidable.

block_quotes_start I must stop making d**k jokes and get out of my nappy stage. I love what Ayanda Mabula is doing. He makes me look like Enid Blyton block_quotes_end

Not unexpectedly, the sculpture brings Zuma to mind, looming as a seemingly immovable character, a brute. Or is the legacy of The Spear such that we will only ever look for Zuma in his art?

Murray is quick to point out that the artwork is tied to his personal, everyday life - it echoes cartoon figures such as Dumbo or the Gruffalo, which he's been exposed to through his children. As the title suggests, it is about repetition: one corrupt state replaced by another.

This theme runs through the exhibition, and is best expressed in the phrase Nelson Mandela famously used in his presidential inaugural address, when he said "Never, never and never again" in relation to oppression.

Words become sculptures in Murray's hands - they can be weighed literally and metaphorically.

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The refined execution of them is what gives his art weight too. He exploits this quality to counter the crudeness of his statements, or "jokes" as he dubs his art.

"You can get away with bad jokes if you tell them well," he says.

There is less humour in his new exhibition, which presents work he showed previously under the same title at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town in 2015, although a new sculpture of a dead rat is titled My favourite politician is a dead politician. "First there is tragedy and then farce. Now it is just tragedy followed by tragedy," says Murray.

From his perspective The Spear may well have simply been "a bad d**k joke." As such he was taken aback by the uproar it caused.

"If you are president of a country and you live in a democracy, you are going to get nailed, rightly or wrongly, and I would imagine in a country with so many problems to be addressed near last on the list would be a painting in gallery that is slightly off-colour."

Given the deep factionalism in the ruling party and mounting evidence of abuse of power, which has engendered a movement to unseat Zuma, Murray now feels The Spear and the attitudes expressed in the Hail to the Thief exhibition were prescient in identifying state capture.

Nevertheless, his "spear joke" tanked. Many black people felt he had crossed a line of decency from which there was no return. He was a racist, no question.

"In hindsight", a recurring phrase during our conversation, which suggests that time has softened his attitudes, he says he is interested in the boundaries between "the right to human dignity and the right to freedom of expression".

He suggests this is a struggle he has been "negotiating since I woke up in 1976".

block_quotes_start I believe in the absolute freedom of expression. I have to listen to Steve Hofmeyr and the Orania separatists speaking block_quotes_end

His link to the struggle movement as a student activist generating protest posters is well documented and informs his artistic vocabulary and role as a politically engaged artist. It has also ironically exposed how he has gone from activist to a political outsider of another kind.

He has attempted to remain self-reflexive about his political activism in light of his white privilege. This was best encapsulated in the 2009 La Petite Revolution work consisting of the phrase "Pass me the cucumber sandwiches darling, we are having a revolution". It is a slogan he often repeated during his activist days to remind himself of his white, middle-class status.

"I know I am part of the problem and I try to articulate it as best I can."

Despite this reflexivity, the question remains: was The Spear a "failed" joke or artwork and does he regret having made it?

"Depending on my mood, the answer changes. I would not wish what happened to my family or the gallery to happen to anybody.

"Certainly, in a democracy, you should be able to say something without a faction trying to censor you and fan the flames of racism."

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Murray has undoubtedly had second thoughts about The Spear. He suggests artists are often unaware what they have made until they have done so and placed it in the public sphere. In this way, art can only be understood in retrospect. He is adamant that artists should be allowed to "fail" without fear of reprisal or violence.

"They need the space to f**k up, edit and move forward."

How and why an artwork or form of expression might fail is interesting and this should not be censored by the "Facebook fascists or the Twitter nostra", he says.

"I believe in the absolute freedom of expression. I have to listen to Steve Hofmeyr and the Orania separatists speaking.

"We have to give them the platform to do so because if I don't then I am denying myself that right too."

In a new self-portrait of sorts, he portrays himself as a dead canary. Yet efforts to censor his art and his own misgivings about his work have not shifted his focus. He continues to make art about the failings of the current political regime and indeed he has used The Spear debacle as fodder for new work.

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Nagapie in the Headlights, a photograph of the artist appearing stunned, and a diptych titled Call and Response which recalls a Bart Simpson gag presenting the juxtaposition of the phrase "Do not make political art" with "You are a corrupt f**k", make obvious references to the whole debacle. The title Again Again, echoes the burden of his compulsion to critique the status quo.

He isn't anxious about responses to the works on the exhibition as a large proportion of the art showed in Cape Town without causing any distress. There are no obviously contentious works or any nudity.

Murray admits self-censorship has become his enemy and he wants to move beyond generating one-liner art, though he suggests he naturally prefers to "go from A to B rather than taking a long route to saying something". He attributes this to an inbuilt crudeness and immaturity.

"I must stop making d**k jokes and get out of my nappy stage."

Murray appears to be slowly reclaiming the confidence that The Spear debacle might have challenged, yet there is a sense that the battle this visual weapon generated has left deep scars.

He would much rather watch other artists push the envelope and challenge the line between freedom of expression and decency than put himself in the firing line again.

"I love what Ayanda Mabula is doing. He makes me look like Enid Blyton."

Again Again will show at the Everard Read and Circa galleries in Johannesburg from March 2 until the end of April