The President’s ‘Private’ Portrait

My view on things is often not shared; however, it is my view and I reserve the right to it as enshrined in our constitution.  One doesn’t know for how long one will be allowed an independent view in SA, so I’m enjoying mine while I may still have it.   People have been up in arms both about the painting and my view.  I have been told ‘I have lost all respect for you’, and ‘I am deeply disappointed in you’.  Why?  They don’t share my view.

I have the utmost respect for the President.  I don’t know Jacob Zuma as an individual, but I have heard that he is a lovely man with a good sense of humour and a sharp intellect. The ladies seem to like him. He deserves, as do all South Africans, to be treated with dignity and respect.

I confess that I was shocked – shok-ett-ted – shocked when I saw the painting by Brett Murray.  Our President, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, genitals exposed.  *Gasp*!  *Sharp intake of breath*! *Eyes Wide*!  Haibo!

JZ has a reputation for philandering, frequent marrying, collecting girlfriends, chowing chamber maids and fathering illegitimate children, so an artist could be forgiven for seeing him as a man led by the long fella.  His image in other cartoons, raping justice etc might also lend a nudge to the artist’s chimerical representation.

Many people had a violently angry response to seeing the painting.  This is good.  Art should elicit a strong response.  Therein lies its success.  Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon provoked hysteria in its day. It was painted in 1907.  It portrayed five nude prostitutes.  There was outrage.  Now the piece is world famous, highly acclaimed and would be a much coveted lot at the auctioneers. It’s Picasso.

A couple of years ago an English sculptor, Jamie McCartney created The Great Wall of Vaginas.  He took plaster casts of 400 vaginas and mounted those casts in 40 frames.  The piece is nine metres long.  It was shocking.  It was empowering. It is art.  Art has both the right and the duty to be provocative.  The Great Wall of Vaginas demonstrates the individuality of each woman.  Yes, he could have shown faces, but faces are prosaic.  Art has no rights to being prosaic.

It’s far from the first time a penis has been thrust in the faces of the art appreciating public.  In early Greek and Roman sculpture the penis is proudly present.  As far back as the statue of Zeus, which is 2450 years old and resides in Greece, the penis has been on display.  It was a symbol of male pride and strength.  Look at Michelangelo’s David’s penis and the virtue of universal man and all that.  When a statue of Michelangelo’s David was presented to Queen Victoria in 1857, a plaster cast of a fig leaf was placed over the genitals to protect the sensitivities of the ladies.  Today ladies are less sensitive, perhaps because women have suffered too much for too long at the hands of the penis.  But that’s another issue for another day.

I don’t pretend to understand this painting.  It seems that this artist is making a political statement.  At first impression I would imagine it being about power, virility, and dominance.  That is what the penis symbolises, is it not?  Violence perhaps.

JZ is portrayed as Lenin was once portrayed.  The characterised similarity of the intellectual Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and the African capitalist, populist revolutionary is not unflattering.  The genitalia display the definitive power tool of the male human.  Is that unflattering?  It depends how you read it.  It isn’t necessarily unflattering.  Perhaps the painting is about power leading to corruption and political infringement on the interests, security and welfare of the citizens; or maybe it’s about the scarcity of morals and the surfeit of greed; or political abuse, the rape of the nation.  Is the artist seeing the penis as a symbol of denigration?  It has to be about something other than the penis.  The penis is the symbol, or motif.

Even JZ concedes, though in objection, that he is being portrayed as a womaniser and philanderer.  I chuckle at that being his defence in court.  What is a philanderer?  It’s a man who has many sexual encounters.  What is a womaniser?  It is a man who likes many women. He likes to nibble them.  He likes to nibble them with the part of his anatomy that the artist has exposed to us all.  Is that why there is such remonstration?

“It is un-African”, they say.  “ We don’t do that in African culture,” they say.  I agree.  It is un-African.  We do not do that in African culture.  I totally agree.  It is disrespectful in any culture.  But art is not bound by culture.  The artist colours outside the lines, pushes the boundaries; the artist dares.  Art is a medium of free expression and intellectual discourse.  It seeks to please no one.  It seeks to express, sometimes to galvanize, always to inspire.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in all the outrage at the effrontery of the artist there seem to be none who are prepared to challenge their own visceral response.  All displayed a totally insular view of the artist and his intent.  In fact, no one addressed the art, at all.   No one asked the question, ‘what is this painting saying’.  I suspect none of them thought to care about the notion of the artist’s intention or what the symbolism of the penis adds.  I saw no questioning of the painting.  I saw only blind apoplexy.

In my view the president shouldn’t be allowed to take artists to court.  Instead of flying into ‘aggrieved ego’ mode every time Zaprio, Africartoons, or Brett Murray illustrate him in a way that he finds disagreeable, I think he should  (in this instance especially) interrogate the piece and ask himself if there could be a motive beyond insolence for this depiction.

When he is satisfied that it is not malice, it is art, he should return to his office at The Union Buildings and run the nation.  He should build a few thousand schools, and hospitals; a few million houses, communities and roads.  He should provide electricity and running water to more than a few million rural villages. He should create welfare for the millions of elderly, unemployed and unemployable.  He should create a few million jobs.  He should find a cure for AIDS.  When he is done he should take another look at how artists choose to illustrate him.  He might, in fact, find that by then he’s too busy to care what artists do.


About Tselane Tambo

I share myself in these desultory ramblings. It’s my thoughts and memories; some anecdotes and opinions. It’s an accidental autobiography. When you’ve meandered through these pages you’ll be within reach of a little piece of me. Thank you for dropping by.
This entry was posted in Nocturnal Ramblings of a Mind Unplugged. Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to The President’s ‘Private’ Portrait

  1. Colin says:


  2. kwakhehla says:

    Astute, and to the point as usual. As many outraged people who have gone to court have found to their cost, the proof of the pudding is in the defence. And the defence in this case will be far more embarrassing for the President than for the artist. It won’t be long before some very private negotiations are under way and some compromise is announced.

    An oddity is that the reports keep referring coyly to President Zuma’s “private parts”. After so much exposure it would be more correct to refer to them as his “public parts”. And he is surely not claiming that they are, in fact, an actual portrayal of his own. Personally I think he is annoyed because he feels that the rather scrawny genitalia depicted are a poor representation of reality.

    He should have ignored the hoo-haa and just risen to the occasion (pardon the pun) by commenting only with his famous chuckle. He has been very poorly served in this matter by his political advisors.

    Truly “much ado about nothing”. Mr Zuma, as you point out, has more important things to do with his time. And in any case it is a bit late in the date for righteous indignation and moral outrage.

    And as for Gwede Mantashe’s inciting words, ALL politicians are grist for the mill for satirical writers, comedians, artists and cartoonists. And that has little to do with race, but everything to do with performance. It comes with the job.

  3. Tsunami says:

    My point exactly, much ado about nothing. We should’nt be where we are with this whole storm in a tea cup. I’m being viewed as a sellout for saying that the Bill of Rights does not protect a person’s respect due to the fact that this is an area of life that requires one to earn it. You are not born into or with it, you earn it…thanx for that bravery and refusal to be politically correct.

  4. Janine says:

    I completely agree, and as many people have already stated that had it been any other political figure, would the ANC have reacted the same way. This is all because of his reputation, in Afrikaans we say, “wat jy saai sal jy maai.”

  5. I disagree with you totaly Miss T but will defend your right to have your view. The truth is there is nowhere in our consitution where it states that artist rights supersedes all rights. Our constitution guarantees us all equal rights. You talk about interrogating the painting as if it is of some political value when it actually adds nothing to the discourse but only says what we already know about the president. Only a troglodyte would not know, for instance, that president Zuma is a polygamist. As for the gallery’s risible guff that the piece challenges the status quo I personally do not see how. What status qou really? One mistake I will blame Jacob Zuma for now, is that of sacking his Praetorian guard that Malema led so well. If he still had them he would not be worrying about defending this nonsense but would have only send his attack dogs to do the hatchet job for him. If Julious were still around he would have quickly organised a rolling mass action to this gallery. What is very clear is that “the New SA farce ” still needs a radioactive black person like Julious who could think the unthinkable and say the unsayable about the still pro-white status quo.

    • Monique Buckner says:

      Polygamy does nothing for women’s rights. Why doesn’t South Africa legalize polyandry them? How can you say that this painting adds nothing to the discourse on art, politics, our history, etc? It has clearly fired up a storm in South Africa and abroad. Malema and his followers would not be the right people to defend Jacob Zuma- he is known for his misogynistic and hate speech, and these two manners of expression are not protected under the constitution. Your use of the word ‘radioactive’ is pertinent, however- Malema is certainly energetic but dangerous if exposed to the public. How can the status quo be pro-white? And what do you think of Ayanda Mabulu’s artwork of Zuma and his response to this controversy?

  6. shaine griqua says:

    i would like to meet Jacob Zuma, na dask him a few questions

  7. neo tsoai says:

    really dissappointed to see that people are defying a public figure like our president..thorough legal steps must be taken i say!

    • Leigh says:

      What makes the president so special that he can’t be defied? In this country especially one would expect everyone to appreciate our ‘sort-of’ democracy. Yes, the painting is offensive, but when there are more important things to be done, who cares about 1 painting?

    • Monique Buckner says:

      Public figures are open to public scrutiny and criticism.

  8. Pat says:

    As an artist myself, I looked at the painting without seeing a negative or disrespectful portrait, I saw a powerful graphic work of art.
    I also saw the painting’s artistic heritage; it reminded me of Andy Warhol’s art work, and the celebrated graphic portrait of President Obama, maybe also an echo of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, as well as many other artistic influences.
    Despite the controversial nature of this particular portrait, it is a well crafted work of art. I imagine some day in the future, it will be a proud part of South Africa’s national artistic heritage. The only disgrace will be the current censor’s reaction.
    Artists are usually creatively “thinking outside the box”, way ahead of the society around them in exploring conceptual ideas, pushing societies boundaries of expression.
    I imagine with all the media attention, this work will become famous throughout the world, and be an iconic work of South African modern art.

    • john says:

      I disagree, a hanging penis and testicles are not art, but an open zip, has a far deep meaning than private parts……The plagiarized painting is an insult to President Zuma…and it gives credence to what Frantz Fanon wrote about in his book, Black skin, white Mask….The David painting, is naked as a whole…..Zuma’s painting is not…….only the private parts a laid bare….., instead of an open zip…..why? Clearly an element of disrespect………and insult…. With and open zip, it would have made more sense in interpretation……..rather not to show, genitalia……….Private parts, remain private….hence a right to privacy, which is intertwined with the right to dignity…..

    • as an artist you should know that it is a crib of a Lenin Poster and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit 1980 – great art is original – NOTHING in this ‘artwork’ is original.

  9. Mdu says:

    Interesting Read!

  10. thembisa says:

    I couldn’t have said it better

    • Lebo says:

      I believe in freedom of expression , art and all those other words we use to make excuses to infringe on other’s dignity and rights but my argument is put yourself in the man’s shoes.. If an artist put a pic of you and naked without your consent for public viewing as said it’s art would you still be shake if off as if it’s nothing.We all have nightmares about walking into a room full of people naked . I don’t see any of Murray’s talents in that pic , all he did was take a pic of Lenin and put Zuma’s face and add a penis for media sensationalism to get himself recognized, that’s not art that is a money making scheme and true to form a scheme is always at other people’s expense.

      • Is that all he did, the artist, I mean. Is that how art is made?

      • Tony Vink says:

        Good piece, not emotional and asking good questions.
        (@ Lebo)
        I am fasinated at the common argument by the ‘nay’ side of the debate: how would you feel if you were depicted in this way? It clearly is something some people would hate, but to think that it is a view held by all? Not so. Those who do, take themselves way too seriously. Why would you fear walking into a room of naked people? Best not visit the zullu village in KZN, clearly that is meant for tourists only. Clearly the private parts depicted are not in-fact JZ’s and maybe the aartist modeled for that himself!! Hehe.
        Oh and to say that It was a scheme to cause an outcry to get himself recognised. This artist has been arr

      • Tony Vink says:

        Good piece, not emotional and asking good questions.

        (@ Lebo with respect)
        I am fasinated at the common argument by the ‘nay’ side of the debate: how would you feel if you were depicted in this way? It clearly is something some people would hate, but to think that it is a view held by all? Not so. Those who do, take themselves way to seriously. Why would you fear walking into a room of naked people?
        The private parts depicted are not in-fact JZ’s and maybe the artist modeled for that himself!! Hehe.
        Oh and to say that It was a scheme to cause an outcry to get himself recognised. This artist has been arround for years that’s how he got to do a solo exhibit at the gallery in the first place. There’s much more to art than meets the eye. But dissing it because it offends your sensitiveties… Or because it’s not acceptable in your culture? There are many things I don’t understand in other cultures, but that doesn’t give me the right to demand a change. Eg: witch doctors, initiation rites and crude circumcisions. And my wife still fights with me when I wear socks in sandals #dutchman.
        I must agee with a statement I read earlier today by the (big mouth) Gareth Cliff:”If you don’t have an appreciation for art, you have no business claiming it offends you.”

        The sad thing abouth Mr JZ’s peepee painting is that we are arguing about something that is very low on the scale of importance in SA. As opposed to the commentry the artist is trying to show us with the issues about governance, politics, broken promises…

        Don’t look at the painting, read it, interpret it.

      • Monique Buckner says:

        It isn’t a photo of Jacob Zuma’s penis, it’s an artistic representation. High-ranking oliticians in Canada and England have been represented naked and with their penises exposed.

  11. toni_gon says:

    A person wanting respect should respect others. I could hope to sayvit better than you. Well said! Many will criticise your view, they will do so to place themselves more favourably. Great insight, thank you.

  12. toni_gon says:

    I could not hope to say it better – correction

  13. mamiky molefe says:

    Tselane you are so on point…the artist actually conveyed the message to the president as to hw we view him as a nation

  14. Wogan says:

    I honestly think this is much ado about nothing. Every human alive knows what genitals look like.

  15. Ey guys, jacob zuma is a rabbit! He likes punani so much that he devalued his friendship with irvin khoza, and bonked his daughter then had a child with her. I don’t even wanna start with all his infidelities which are shown by the number of kids he has. How can u be 70yrs old and have toddlers running around? Let’s face fact nd not defend disgcusting doings by a 70yr old who just happens to be the president!

  16. Brilliant article – Can’t wait to read more of your work! Love you writing style…

  17. Murray McGibbon says:

    Bravo Tselane, BRAVO! Your article should be on the front page of every newspaper in South Africa, and indeed, the world tomorrow. Much love and happy memories, Murray.

  18. Your piece is an echo of my very own words this evening in discussion over this ‘piece’. Get back to work, Zuma and do what you are being paid an extortionate amount of money to do (OH… and that’s aside from the MILLIONS that you are ‘overspending’) and forget about the critics… whether it’s art or words, you cannot please all of the people all of the time, but… by doing your JOB, you will please many, many, many millions and we will all love you so much more!

  19. Tselane's Friend says:

    Woah Msholozi my president! The very people you fought for are now thanking you like this.

    Your 10 years on Roben island mean nothing to them today only because, like all human beings, you committed some mistakes.

    People like Ms. Tambo here chose to defend art today with their big English as though it was human. As if it has feelings. As if it served some prison term for the freedom we now have.

    Today Ms. Tambo and many others like her suggest that you carry on as though nothing has happened. Is this how we treat politicians now? Like robots? I disagree with you sisi! This here is a man with feelings and emotions, just like you. To suggest that which you do is just a shame.

    You need one of those ubuntu blankets yazi! You are so cold!

    This mentality isn’t right.

    It’s the same kind of mentality this artist has, that you can thrive on other people’s flaws, mistakes and misery as if you haven’t got any of your own.

    This mentality is robbing us
    of our self-respect and that of others.

    It’s this kind of mentality that defeats even what Mandela preached and practised: forgivness.

    This mentality says even God is wrong!
    This mentality is evil.

  20. Sis Tselane Tambo: Being one who greatly admired your great father – I can see a lot of his wisdom and candor come through yourself. What you have presented is so astute and really makes the thinking person reconsider much of the hallaballoo surrounding this interpretation by Patrick Murray. It depends entirely from which perspective the onlooker views this “art-work” when delivering comment. On the other hand; Zapiro’s cartoon lampooning the same painting is indeed a cheap shot at JZ – not adding mirth but laying further insult and no doubt further anger. At this point I think Zapiro has definitelt overstepped the mark … in my opinion … for what it’s worth …

  21. regina maselonyane says:

    Thank you Tselane for such insightful comments! Can JZ get on with now!

  22. malose says:

    Amen to this I like en like

  23. wisey says:

    Bravo! Powerful, why aren’t you in parliament? Really, why didn’t you go into law or something! I thoroughly loved L-O-V-E-D this piece :-) Wow Tselane!

  24. Louise says:

    I support and fully agree on your view of this well written article. Thank you for so eloquently expressing most of our views and thoughts.

  25. Sydney says:

    I think maybe we are to some extent expecting a little too much from JZ, he’s too lazy or uneducated to even start interogating art (or is he?).
    He is hardly educated and has surrounded himself with like-minded people that don’t advise him well, that’s if they do at all. It seems to me that all of ANC’s reactions have be impulsive and not well thought. The President can’t even start to defend himself if all he can deduce from the portrait is that he’s a “philanderer and womaniser”~Which of course epitomises his character. He should be seeing this as an image he should be changing if he’s to be a great leader at all. The fact that the country is divided on this matter is because many people do share Murray’s sentiments. And if all the President is gonna do in defence is a blanket censorship (in the world of internet mind you), then he’s got a long way to go [of course that’s if he’s got any way to go at all]

  26. lorna levy says:

    Good analysis. All aspects covered – not a pun!

  27. It is a slippery road though. There was a time when black people were portrayed and painted / caricatured as monkeys. I remember my grandfather (my mom’s uncle) who lived on a farm then, simply dismissing it for very practical reasons – he did not want to cause trouble and he rather prefered to “look at the big picture” – he sojourned on a farm. I therefore cannot stop to wonder, in the first place, if the President was Jacob van Zyl with blue eyes whether he would be caricatured in this way. Secondly assuming that these artists were so liberated that they would have caricatured Pres. Van Zyl this way, if the public discourse would be the same. In my view, it is too early to caricature black people in any derogatory sense simply because we do not know whether these are old stereotypes resurfacing under the safety net of “freedom of expression” or genuine artistic imperatives of “pushing the boundaries”. I also wonder what the Jewish communities’ reaction would be to a German artist painting a Jew with a very small brain let alone their genitalia exposed.

  28. Tumelo says:

    I am worried that those who shout respect and dignity of the individual and the office never thought (even though they admit privately that it’s nothing new they are seeing) off not voting one embarrassing act into office. What were they expecting us to say when he starts showing us who he really is? Did they not question his morals and how they would reflect on the office (because clearly he didn’t care how it reflected on him). How is history going to judge him and his pimps? Do they think taking expel to court will put him in good light? They cannot muscle anyone into conforming.

    I agree with you Tselane and as long as we are allowed to publicly say “Shower head …..” we will do so. Besides what legacy is he leaving us? He has done nothing but enslave the masses and enrich his family members. Need I repeat the blunders of this administration? Why not spend time discussing that than taking people to courts over what?

  29. Michelle says:

    I submit this link as Exhibit “A”. I don’t recall a huge huff about this. Does anyone else? :

  30. jabulani says:

    What a load of nonsense, if a black person was to paint a portrait of Hellen Zille with her genitallia exposed the painter would be called a peverted, discusting etc…

  31. aristy says:

    painting has been defaced and culprit caught at Goodman Gallery while a full 3-judge bench hears the case on Thursday… irrational behavior and detracting from the real issue of service delivery –
    I fear for SA – our democracy suddenly feels very fragile

  32. Yandiswa says:

    I would say its totally wrng, wt would he do if it was his private parts there? Wht bwt Jz s kids oh no its embarrasing

  33. Ros says:

    If an artist put a pic of you and naked without your consent for public viewing as said it’s art would you still be shake if off as if it’s nothing.” – LEBO”
    The point that I find comical about this whole situation is that those are not, in fact, the presidents genitals… did he pose for the portrait? I’m sure he didn’t, therefore how can he be offended by somebody’s very generic portrayal of a penis? My point is, that is not his penis, why all the commotion?

  34. Vanessa says:

    I’ll succıntly comment “very eloquently put”

  35. Smanga says:

    Im happy now, the president feels the pain of our crieses, No one who is better & special than others. If you are gatfol about the art, then how about the jobless & the poor? So get over it papa.

  36. Pingback: This is not about art – Africa is a Country

  37. patrick diamona says:

    what is African culture? Is there even such a thing as South African culture, as opposed to Venda or Xhosa culture? and at what point does the common good take precedence over what is an arbitrary set of practises that developed out of historic, geographic and even clmatic factors. I find this recourse to culture flimsy.

  38. Pingback: This is not about art – Africa is a Country

  39. thabs says:

    wow, brilliant T,

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