The Case of the Spear

Freedberg, David A.

Censorship and iconoclasm are two of the most powerful expressions of contempt for images. They testify - graphically and eloquently — to the power of the very effects they seek to annul. Throughout history people have sought to suppress, mutilate or destroy images. In some cases the assaults have been political, in others pathological. Often a current of concern about the sensual and sexual power of images underlies the efforts at their elimination or suppression of an image. The recent events surrounding Brett Murray’s The Spear, his satirical portrait of President Jacob Zuma, form part of this long history — though rarely has an effort at official censorship been followed so predictably by an act of iconoclasm. Based on Viktor lvanov’s iconic image of Lenin, Brett Murray’s The Spear shows Zuma gazing prophetically to the future. He stretches his arm out towards tWfirst glance it seems authoritative and leaderly enough for the president of South Africa. But then one notices: his trousers are unzipped, and from his open fly hangs a penis.

The painting was put on display on 10 May 2012 in an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery entitled Hail to the Thief Ii. This title was a clear reference to the widespread perception of corruption in the government and at the highest levels of the ANC. As for the picture itself, there could be little doubt that it alluded to the president's apparently exuberant sexuality. Painted just before his marriage to his sixth wife, the work surely referred to his well-known history of polygamy, seduction and alleged rape. At his 2006 trial for raping the young HIV-positive daughter of an old ANC comrade of his, Zuma insisted that the sex was consensual and that by showering after sex he had minimised the risk of contracting HIV. In response, the cartoonist Zapiro drew several cartoons showing Zuma with a shower growing out of his head that roused ire in official ANC circles. Now, hearing of the threats to censor Murray's painting, he produced a cartoon based on The Spear, this time with a shower in place of the penis. But it was the painting itself that aroused the fiercest controversy.


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Also Published In

Art South Africa

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
September 28, 2022