21 May 2012

South Africa: The President's Penis

opinion

Photo: The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa
President Jacob Zuma (file photo).

Over the past eighteen months there have been enough "Kaffir" slips of the tongue, from different echelons of White society, to prove that racism is alive and well and living on the tips of the tongues of most White South Africans.

In many cases all it takes is a bit too much wine, a bump in the Spar or a little bit of fame and Eros from the rightwing, to let it slip. And the recent hanging of 'The Spear' in the Goodman Art Gallery is not really much different. It may be a more erudite slip of the tongue but the painting is no more than a euphemism for the word "Kaffir".

Using the term Kaffir translates into letting the receiver know that they are inferior, not civilized and even if in a suit they have no chance of reaching the same high rung of rational humanity that White people occupy.

It seems that the racial and cultural lines have been drawn over the matter of art vs disrespect in Brett Murray's parody of Zuma, which is part of a larger body of work called 'Hail to the thief II'. It is blatantly noticeable that it is largely Black folk against the rest of South Africa on this issue, as many minority views generally side with the Eurocentric notion that it is okay to infer that the Black president is a rampantly savage sex fiend and publicly shame him in what is probably the most insulting manner a man in his culture can be affronted.

The president stands guilty as charged for his transgressions against womankind, homophobia and dubious leadership style, which many point to as the inspiration for the artwork.

But for me it is the racism in the work, that goes beyond a critique of the president's misdemeanours, which also begs deconstruction - because while we are all wailing and gnashing our teeth about the waywardness of Zuma's dick there is another insidious racist phenomenon worming its way through our society, which strengthens the White phallocentric supremacist stranglehold over all of our discourse - and it seems they are using the construction of the big black dick to do just this.

Let us unpack the 'The Spear' from a racialised and colonial perspective, something that the art fraternity seems to be deliberately circumventing in their cry for freedom of expression over all else. I too believe in freedom of expression wholeheartedly, but this does not make all artistic expression exempt from critique just as critique does not infer censorship.

The point, people, is this is not the president's penis. It is the grotesquely huge Black male 'dick-ness' that resides somewhere in the deep collective consciousness of the White psyche - a primal and savage 'dick-ness' that was entrenched about 500 years ago as a White supremacist plot to control the world of women and racism. A dick-ness that liberals are fond of saying they are over - that they no longer associate the 'humungous animalistic dick theory' to Black men.

Except that they do and if 'avant-garde' art is the messenger of the intellectual unconscious then it is clear to me that the dick-ness of the Black male is still in the forefront of the White phantasmal.

Turn the clock back a few hundred years, when colonial discourse created this hype around a Black primal and uncontrollable sexuality. Indigenous people were perceived by the European colonisers as wild and rampantly sexual and the enslaved Black man was constructed as a cultural savage, a religious heathen, and socially inferior. The inferiority of the Black male was, of course, constructed as a way to justify the brutality of the slave system, while the notion that the Black man had an insatiable craving to conquer pristine White womanhood was concocted to ease the guilty consciences of White slave masters who characteristically forced themselves on their female slaves. In their minds, the Black man, out of retribution, would do the same thing to White women if given half a chance, thus they had to be brutalized to keep this threat at bay.

So the myth of 'big dick-ness' was invented to control the sexuality of the Black male by casting him as a sexual terrorist, a sexual monster in alliance with Satan himself.

The same 'colonial fantasy' is witnessed in Murray's obsessive focus on Zuma's genitals. It is evident that an assured racial fetishism is the important element in both the pleasures and displeasures, which the painting plays upon. Such racial fetishism not only eroticizes the most visible aspect of racial difference as seen through the White male's filter - dick size/colour - but also pushes the ideological reproduction of a primal and irrational Black sexuality.

The White male subject is thus positioned at the centre of representation by a desire for mastery, power, and control over the racialised and substandard Black 'other'.

While many in the arts fraternity have made use of the shaky codes of the fine-art nude in support of this painting, I say that Murray has done no more than use the controlled function of the colonial racist stereotype - the Black man as promiscuous or savage - as a way to 'fix' the Black subject in its place and thereby stabilize the invisible and all-seeing White subject at the centre of the gaze. And this fixing is not simply as the 'other' but as the 'thing' in the field of vision that reflects both the fears and fantasies of the purportedly omnipotent White male subject.

Fanon said it best when diagnosing the horrifying figure of 'the Negro' in the fantasies of his White psychiatric patients, "One is no longer aware of the Negro, but only of a penis: the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis".

By use of the mechanism of scale, Murray orders up one of the deepest mythological fears in the supremacist and neoliberal imagination: namely, the belief that all Black men have monstrously large cocks coupled with an animalistic sex drive. In the phantasmic space of the White male imaginary, the big Black phallus is perceived as a threat not only to hegemonic White masculinity but to White civilization itself, since the 'monstrous object' represents a danger to White wealth and social order and therefore presents the threat of an unstable world because it is no longer in control of the White man.

Within the picture, the binary makeup of everyday racial discourse is underlined by the nudge/wink irony of the contrast between the Black man's exposed private parts and the display of respectability signified by the suit. This creates a binary in the oppositional play of the hidden and exposed, exposed and clothed, which play upon the Western dualism of inferior and superior, savage and civilized, body and mind, nature and culture. These are the very binaries that inform the logic of dominant racial discourse.

In this way, the construction of racial difference in the image suggests that bestial sexuality, and nothing but this, is the essential 'nature' of the Black man, because, although in a suit, the unzipped dick confirms his failure to gain access to 'culture'. This suggests that the suit is nothing but a camouflage of middleclass respectability, but that it fails to conceal the fact that the Black man, as the White man's racial other, derives, like his dick, from somewhere outside of civilization.

Dig a bit deeper and there is yet another layer to the White male neurosis that plays out in 'The Spear'. As Sander Gilman states in his seminal text Black bodies/White Bodies:

"Whites do not project a sexuality on the Black man which they themselves would like to have, but rather project onto others the faults they fear in themselves and thereby purge themselves of those evils.

Fears of an excessive and uncontrolled sexuality are stilled by ascribing this unmanaged, and possibly unmanageable sexuality to Black men and to other groups that are in disfavour, (as seen in the historical repression of womankind.) Thus White men can be rest assured that they are good, because the evil which they secretly fear in their own nature is manifest in other groups who are for reasons scapegoated."

Perhaps this representation of the unruly sexuality of Zuma/Black men is an oblique way of giving expression to the anxiety of living adjacent to a hostile 'other' population that has the massive potential to revolt against them at any given moment. It is also the fear of an 'other' that remains, to the White South African, ambiguous and unfamiliar. The constant threat felt by White men can only be mentioned obliquely by expressing their view of the Black man as over-sexualised and primal and therefore incapable of running a country.

'The Spear' is most certainly an exposition not only on the White view of Zuma and his inability to measure up to leadership tenets as well as they would - it is also an indictment on how Black men in general, in South Africa, are perceived through the White filter to not measure up when it comes to political, economic, and cultural power in a White discourse dominated society. And there are elements of both fear and envy in this comparison. The big black dick, though a fabrication of White men - is now used to deride and disparage Black men for not measuring up in other ways.

But we also know that men across the race divide measure their self-worth by the size of their dicks too. Hence the White man will, rather than admit to his fears about an undersized dick, ridicule a Black man using his oversized and well-hung dick as the joke, in a way to overcome his own insecurities. In this way, by making the Black man's penis central to his identity, he in effect, un-hangs him by inferring that his agency is more about his penis than anything else.

This is exactly the psychology Murray relies on as he sets about un-hanging Zuma by taking it upon himself to expose the President's privates. The underlying invitation is for the audience to participate in a public lynching and this is exactly what has played out in the media. At the same time though, we get the sinister sense that Zuma becomes a symbolic catchall for White male feelings of superiority over all Black men.

And this is where the gratification contained within this work, from a White male perspective, plays itself out in a palpable sense of the pleasurable fantasy of their superiority over the Black subject - a phenomenon, which translates into a kind of sexualised fantasy. This fantasy inversely centres on the enormous penis and boundless sexual primal energy of the Black man.

Zuma is the perfect purveyor of this White male fantasy, which is encased both in fear and awe, disgust and envy, as he exhibits a sexuality not inhibited by guilt or even remotely concealed, even with the weighty title of a President. These fantasies are a source of delight that 'civilised' White men can fully relish because they can then feel that they are safely and morally in control of their own sexual urges and thus have the hold over rationality, lucid thinking and self-control which are imperative traits that the European has always attributed to himself. In this way he feels exclusively civilised.

There is something both savage and fairly pathetic about a group of intellectuals shuddering deliciously as they sip their champagne and congratulate themselves on their cerebral hold over the avant-garde. This is the shudder of pleasure - the pleasure that the messaging in 'The Spear' purveys. It is the collective self-congratulatory pat on the back that somehow they are entitled to expose the 'savage and socially inferior Black man' no matter what affect it has on the psyche of a Black population.

The myth of Black sexuality propagated in Murray's 'The Spear' does nothing more than provide yet another White phallocratic avenue for bragging about European civilization and reassure White men that their fleshy White 'members' are still relevant.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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InFocus

Controversial Zuma Painting Divides South Africans

President Jacob Zuma (file photo).

The controversial "Spear" painting depicting president Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals has divided the country's opinion on freedom of expression and the right to dignity. Read more »