In the last three years, two political cartoons featuring South African President Jacob Zuma’s dick—both drawn by white male artists—have hung in Johannesburg galleries. And as dicks go, they’re respectable; President Zuma must be packing at least a modest treat. But the South African government is infuriated by this presidential peen; deputy minister in the presidency Buti Manamela condemns the satirical artwork as “bigotry and what clearly is racism being projected as art.”
Indeed, Manamela has been particularly vocal in his disgust: “Hopefully the artist feels good about himself and I don’t think we want to be preoccupied with this when the country has far more important concerns.”
R Is for Respect, a cartoon by Anton Kannemeyer, is the latest foray into penile artistry to engender South African outrage. The piece, featuring an immense, airborne dong, certainly invites a charged reaction:
Kannemayer’s looming dick, both monochrome and several shades darker than the figures depicted beneath it, immediately signals his reliance upon symbolism and its implications — and black genitalia is laden with fraught associations. The piece also hearkens back to an earlier and equally provocative painting. As the Guardian notes, “the image is a reference to...The Spear by Brett Murray, which portrayed President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitalia and led to a protest march, court case, and national debate around black African identity and the right to freedom of speech.”
Let’s check out Murray’s handiwork:
There we go: a less intimidating presidential schlong, perhaps, but a schlong nonetheless.
When the painting debuted, Manamela “threatened to close down the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg for displaying [it].” “If you want to ridicule the leadership of the country, that’s your privilege,” he told the Guardian at the time, “It’s quite sickening.” But Kannemeyer, notorious for his contentious work, explains to the Guardian that the protests over The Spear broiled within a larger and devastatingly ironic context. The Guardian reports:
“At the time there was this whole furore, there were people toyi-toying [a protest dance] in the streets, really upset that the president’s penis was drawn, and I remember at the same time in the newspapers there was an article saying that 75 or so primary school black children, girls, were pregnant.”
Zuma’s sexual practices, likely inspiration for both The Spear and R Is for Respect, also summon controversy. He is “a Zulu polygamist who has married six times, and has four current wives and 21 children.” Moreover, “he has admitted fathering one child out of wedlock in 2010 and once stood trial for and was acquitted of rape.”
But none of the preceding details satisfy questions regarding the cartoons’ racist overtones, as well as their exploitation of black bodies. As white men, Kannemeyer and Murray engage in political satire from a position of racial privilege, and many argue that, above all else, these cartoons exemplify the narcissism of white prejudice. City Press arts editor Charl Blignaut tells the Guardian:
“Personally, I regard the work as racist. And, yes, it makes a considerable difference that the artist is white...Of all the ways to criticise president Zuma this is the most problematic because it’s a trope—the rampant black penis—that plays into a painful history of not only exoticisation of the black male body but also the fear of the virile black male that subconsciously drove so much of apartheid policy, alcohol and drug legislation, and separationist philosophy...It both fetishizes and emasculates the black man, while neatly stereotyping him too.”
Murray, however, defends his fellow artist’s right to freedom of expression. “Every artist will have their own limit and should be able to push the envelope,” he argues.
And yet, this furious debate reminds us of the gap between legally sanctioned criticism and the violence of racial appropriation. In more pointed terms: when it comes to drawing dicks, we cannot ignore who holds the pen.
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Top Image via Shutterstock. Embedded Images via artnet News/Getty.