Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Brett Murray breaks his silence with "silence"

No matter how heated the debate became during The Spear debacle earlier this year, Cape Town-based artist Brett Murray chose not to enter the fray. Murray resisted mounting pressure to come forward and explain the motivations behind his contentious portrait of President Jacob Zuma, which exposed the leader's genitals. Even when Zuma took the case to court, to appeal for the artwork to be removed from the Goodman Gallery, various individuals suggested Murray's work was racist in intent, and when his life was threatened, Murray maintained his silence.

There were those in the art community who believed that if he had spoken publicly about the work and explained his intentions, the conflict which the artwork provoked may have been avoided.

On Thursday evening, at the opening of the FNB Joburg Art Fair (JAF) at the Sandton Convention Centre, Murray broke his silence in quite a literal manner with a large scripto-visual artwork presenting the word "silence".

This new artwork, titled Dissent, was discreetly displayed inside the Goodman Gallery's stand. However, it proved to be one of the most talked-about works at this annual event. Once again Murray has chosen not to speak about the work, so viewers at the fair were left to make up their minds about what it might signify. Coming so soon after The Spear debacle, the work does suggest that the pressure the ANC placed on the Goodman Gallery and the artist to withdraw The Spear from public display was tantamount to censorship.

Virtually Real

There is a lot of foot traffic as we make our way up Marshall Street towards Malvern. We are blocks away from hipsters' paradise, or Maboneng as it is dubbed, but have entered another country, where people buy second-hand threads out of necessity and tailors work with their sewing machines on the pavement. As audience members of Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie's peripatetic Between, we are observers of the street life, though at times passers-by glare at us as if we are the subjects of the work. The performers are hard to detect, they are sometimes part of our group or emerge from the throng. It's a guessing game: who and what is for real, and who is on show?

This performance for the Drama for Life festival wasn't anything new. Taking to Joburg's inner city streets as part of a cultural adventure, a way of mapping, and challenging invisible boundaries, and coming to grips with "the other" has quite peculiarly become a (predominantly white) middle-class pursuit. For those who live or pass through the inner city this is everyday life. Underpinning this drive for the middle classes to steep themselves in inner city life is the compulsion to confront "the real Joburg" - that is, the inner city that was abandoned (by white people) from the late 1980s and fell into a state of entropy. Of course, no part of Joburg is more real than another.

The Goethe Institut's New Imaginaries initiative is feeding off this trend, expanding its cultural scope. Its recent Shoe Shop project, which was the first installation, may have centred on migration and movement, exploiting the metaphor attached to urban strolls, but it was significant that one of the key events was a street parade from Braamfontein to the Drill Hall in the inner city that further ritualised this desire to penetrate, confront and reconcile with the "real" Joburg.