|Mbete reliquary figurine|
An old West African proverb compares the artist to a dog. Positioned at the interface of the human and the natural worlds, the dog in most ancient African societies enjoyed a slippery and highly ambiguous cultural status.
Neither a human being, nor a wild animal, it was nevertheless admitted in the domestic sphere where it was recognised as man’s best friend. Loyal to a fault, it was committed to its master to the point of helping him hunt wild animals. This is why it enjoyed special rights. Because a dog was never happier than when its nose was up another’s rear end – the anus, that sensory button of the world – it also symbolised debasement and degradation.
Just like the dog, the artist also enjoyed special rights, including the right to conduct forbidden experiments. His task was to translate society to itself. The “griot” (troubadour), for instance, could insult the king in public. He was allowed to bring outside what was supposed to remain inside or to be covered from sight. Society granted him the right to scandalise while affording him the kind of protection and immunity denied to other individuals. He could experiment with that through which shame and secrecy entered the world – the genitals.
West African sculpture, for instance, is an encyclopedia of anatomy and aesthetics. The buttocks, their beauty, eminence, gourd-like shapes and curves were gladly sung by poets and musicians. Signifiers of plenty, they were identified with capability and constituted an essential part of an individual’s physical attractiveness. The anus was the real object of aversion. An instrument of curse, it typified all that was base and degrading. A fiery sign of the nocturnal, it was the abode of witches.
Erect phalluses were usually depicted as a force of disruption. In the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, the phallus was associated with Legba, a deity of trickery and deception. The meanings attached to an erect penis were always polysemic. Paradoxically, an enlarged penis might well allude to fears concerning infertility, sexual inadequacy, and even impotence. In ancient Africa, the penis was always a public secret. Covered or not, it hardly harboured any mystery. West African sculpture had stripped the penis of its totemic mask. It had learnt to see the penis in its banality, its sheer misery.
The controversy surrounding the exhibition of President Jacob Zuma’s private parts has not only unleashed a torrent of emotions and passions. It has also released high levels of negative and, at times, toxic energy. This is because it has become the point of fixation, the outlet of deep-seated, repressed or denied racial anger which itself is, paradoxically, the expression of a deep longing for a community worthy of that name.
The question we need to ask is why this deep-seated anger had to reveal itself at the intersection of arts, sexuality and power? Why has the phallus become the privileged language of our collective anxieties?
A barely noticed trend of public life in South Africa during the last decade has been the re-emergence of official culture. “Official culture” is the name for the process by which a ruling elite seeks to tame and domesticate its population by establishing official distinctions between the accepted and the unacceptable, the permitted and the forbidden, the normal and the abnormal. It is the process by which it coerces its subjects into internalising and reproducing truths not of their own making.
In the aftermath of apartheid, the ANC has attempted to depoliticise the arts. From the citizens, it is requesting subordination to authority in the name of culturalism. All of this is happening in the midst of a generational crisis that is rendered all the more brutal because it is doubled by a crisis of reproduction.
Many young men, especially among the poor, can no longer enjoy the privileges of patriarchy. There is more than ever before an unequal redistribution of the dividends of manhood. Struggles over access to women are dramatised by high levels of rape and various forms of sexual violation. In this context, President Jacob Zuma represents, in the eyes of many young men, the symbol of a “big man” involved in an unfair capitalisation and monopolisation of those resources necessary for patriarchy to keep reproducing itself.
The re-emergence of official culture has coincided with the intellectual decay of the ruling party. It is the other side of the ongoing carnivalisation of politics, the increasing tendency to settle political matters through the courts, the proliferation of forms of lumpen radicalism that privilege a politics of expediency in lieu of a disciplined politics of principle. A surplus of toxic energy has been aroused as a consequence of the increasing polarisation of the social structure, the re-balkanisation of South African society and deep-seated, repressed or denied racial anger.
In order to account for this new cultural moment, most artists have turned more and more to blasphemy. Defacement, desecration and profanation have become the dominant modes of expression in cartoons, humour, satire, parody or visual arts. Brett Murray’s Hail to the Thief II is part of this new expressive turn. What he has done is like sticking a needle in the heart of a figurine.
What has irked many is not the desecration of President Zuma’s genitals as such. After all, that the president’s senses have run riot is a public secret. What has irked many is the fact that once again, the black body (of which Zuma’s has become in this instance the cipher) is the repository of all the anxieties, neuroses, phobias and sense of estrangement of white South Africa. What has irked many is the realisation that, after almost 20 years of freedom, the black body is still a profane body. It still does not enjoy the kind of immunity accorded to properly human bodies.
Where does all of this leave South African arts and our public culture? Unfortunately, signs of entropy are everywhere to be seen. At present, South African artists compile and collect almost everything. But they are unable to document anything, to give distinct meanings to distinct things and events. There is no nexus, no grid to locate or organise anything. We are stuck in repetition. History has been replaced by an endless procession, a permanent compilation of weak images and objects devoid of any concept – thus the feeling of a radical fragmentation and dispersion of the real.
What contemporary South African arts need are concepts with which to hunt the real. We also need to disrupt and disorganise the archive. To pretend to critique contemporary forms of patriarchy with the categories used in the past to dehumanise the black man is, at best, stupid – a cruel lack of imagination. Meanwhile, the current danger is a gradual closing of the line between the nation and its multiple fragments. Blacks and whites are becoming strangers to each other in ways not witnessed even during apartheid. A renewed bifurcation of culture and a re-balkanisation of the society are under way. Neither the liberal invocation of the freedom of expression, nor the appeal to the constitutional right to dignity will suffice to untie this knot. For the arts to help in averting this danger, they will have to become once again a witness to life.
Achille Mbembe is a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of On the Postcolony.
First published in The Cape Times, 5 June 2012, page 11.