When artistic licence gets pushed too far — Afrika Mhlophe

Also see news report: https://gatewaynews.co.za/kzn-matric-pupil-says-his-art-is-not-satanic-but-explores-commercialised-religion/

“The end justifies the means” is basically the explanation given by the student whose artwork provoked a lot of outrage from South African Christians. Brett Murray had the same pragmatic response for his controversial painting, The Spear. In it he depicted SA President Jacob Zuma in a pose reminiscent of Lenin, with his genitals exposed. Zuma was angry and took Murray to court where he argued that he was hurt and offended as the painting was a violation of his right to dignity and privacy.

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In his defence, Murray said his intention was not to offend. And this is where things get difficult for me concerning contemporary art. We are told to focus on the meaning behind the symbolism. It is as if how the message is communicated becomes irrelevant. The artist Ayanda Mabulu got the memo and took shock tactics to unknown levels.

In one painting, Mabulu depicted President Jacob Zuma licking the behind of a naked Atul Gupta in an aircraft cockpit, with an ANC flag hanging on the side. He followed this with one of President Zuma performing anal sex on a weeping Nelson Mandela. Mabula explained the sexual imagery by saying that corruption is as viscerally traumatic to the body as rape. Young people would say, “like, really?” Because this explanation amounts to a false equivalency.

Yes, the looting of public coffers is bad and deprives many people of a decent livelihood. But can it be equated to rape?  Most importantly, does Zuma’s alleged involvement in corrupt activities invalidate or take away his right to dignity and privacy? Is the artist’s right to freedom of speech superior to Zuma’s basic human rights? These are the questions that swirl in mind as I consider the explanation given by the Grantleigh student. He says that his art explores the commercialisation of organised religion and exploitation of the faithful.

He strenuously argues that his art is not satanic. And yet one of his paintings resembles an album cover of the satanic metal band, Diecide. Besides this, he could have used symbols from any religion to communicate his message. And yet only Christianity was the object of vilification.

He desecrated almost everything Christians hold as sacred — including plastering horned figures with fragments of pages torn from the Bible. It is as though the artist was trying to replicate Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses.

The book is a fanciful and satiric use of Islam. But its literary value was overshadowed by the intense controversy it generated. Muslims everywhere were enraged and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author, enjoining Muslims to kill not only Rushdie but also the book’s editors and publishers. As Christians, we don’t need to engage in such violent acts to defend God. But we do need to use peaceful means to defend our right to believe in Him.

Some Christians think religious persecution and the curtailing of our civil liberties is part of our mandate to turn the other cheek. However, I think such an altruistic position is counterproductive to the Gospel. It is a failure to balance two tensions. The need for compassion for the Grade 12 learner and the duty to confront any attempts devalue our faith. Grantleigh High School former 2011 Headboy Sinjon Moffet has weighed in with an important input.

He countered the use of “freedom of expression” as a viable justification for this artwork. In an open letter to the school he said it should not attempt to pretend that it allows students to express their unbridled personal opinions and beliefs. He said that during his time there, students “who expressed racist and homophobic viewpoints were instantly shut down and disciplined by staff”.

Perhaps the offence caused by this artwork is inadvertent but it should not be minimised. Neither should it be mollified by explanations behind the artwork. Let me ratchet things up a bit. The old South Africa flag is banned. In a court case brought by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Human Rights Commission a court ruled that the gratuitous display of this flag constitutes hates speech. The ruling is based on the historical connotation associated with the flag.

But what about contemporary usage and even the right to freedom of expression? These noble positions did not weigh a lot in the judge’s mind. He felt that greater good was served by the banning order. Does the flag have historical value? Yes, but it is still not fit for public display. Similarly, the association of Jesus with satanic symbols is wrong. Especially from a school which has as its motto, “To God be the Glory”. For, if they are prepared to impugn the Lord’s dignity for the sake of art they might as well have “To Art be the Glory”.

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  1. Kathleen Graham

    Thank you for this article. Jesus is not to be mocked. I ask myself why it is that people feel that they have the right to mock Christ ans all that He stands for at will, but yet other groups religious beliefs never gets treated that way. It’s because there is a hatred for Christ and what he stands for. I can only pray that God will work in the situation.

  2. Was the learner mocking Christ or was he showing how others exploit Christianity for monetary gain? It is meant to be thought provoking not insulting, let’s not act like Christianity is perfect and that there aren’t fake prophets misleading God’s people. So what if he only focused on Christianity this time, he might and surely will tackle another subject in the future, he is an artist, let’s not try to guide his creativity.

    • Hi Neo,

      David’s response covers some of your concerns. As he said Brett Murray succeeded in angering and alienating Zuma, not in changing him. Same with Rushdie. He sold many copies but never changed Muslims. Instead he emboldened them.

      Now on the issue of abuse of Christianity. This is a concern to many people and some of us are addressing it. But is addressing this issue so important that everything else should be ignored? Is the message more important than how it is communicated? If that is so, then why should we find anything wrong with choose to have church at home on their TV screens? They are still getting the message. What about drive through churches or the use of hologram? Does our physical appearance matter or only what we say matters?

      • Also bear in mind that this is a Christian school and contemporary art is only a subject and tiny focus. So why should it overwhelm everything? It is interesting that in your comment you don’t touch on the painting that resembles a cover of a satanic metal band. Does this not matter to you?

  3. Well said, Africa. I do not believe offending anyone will achieve the objective of changing their mind. Did the art work change Zuma? We have the living evidence. Did Rushdie change Muslims? I think in both cases retraction into laager justification may well have been the result.
    The challenge for us Believers (for who are we to defend such a powerful, holy God), will be to get over our offense (scripture tells us this will happen) and pray for a genuine God encounter here. If there haven’t been a noticeable “going on the attack to defend the right to freely express” , I can only imagine a recoiling into a defensive laager of revulsion against the once again labeled ‘haters’ when we are supposed to ‘love’.
    I in no way condone the artwork and in no way support it’s display or the right to freedom of expression in order to cause offense. The school will no doubt have its supporters and those who will remove their children because of this display. My concern is the heart of people, perpetrator and detractor alike. Will they find the True God in all of this and allow Him to do His work in their hearts?

  4. Excellent response. I’m tired of being quiet. The artistic license violates. Why must we always ‘stand down’ for our Christian faith.

  5. Cheryl Cawthorn

    Thank you Sir for this article. It speaks exactly as I feel. When ready other letters it makes one feel that those offended by the display show minimal brain cells and should be ashamed of themselves as Christian for their feelings.

  6. There are two ways to respond to this. This is part of the response from Pastor Jason Currie, Richards Bay Baptist Church. You can find his complete response at https://www.sapeople.com/2019/10/23/open-letter-from-pastor-at-grantleigh-school-and-update-from-upset-parent/
    “I am a pastor who is very involved at Grantleigh. I have been involved in the school through assemblies, camps and various academic ceremonies for the past 4 years. I was at the school on Monday to do the devotion at their Grade 12 awards ceremony. To give a bit of context, the display was put up on Monday, 14 October. It stayed up and could not be moved according to IEB examinations rules which was done on Friday, 18 October. It was taken down on Monday, 21 October after the Grade 12 awards ceremony. The display was placed in a corner cubicle, with a curtain at the entrance that stopped access. There was also a sign that warned that the artwork would be offensive and discretion was needed. It also did not allow kids Grade 7 and younger entry and asked that no pictures or videos were allowed.
    We love our holy cows. It has disturbed me that many Christians are more concerned about our symbols of holiness than holiness itself. This is a person, someone’s child. He is not the enemy. He is made in the image of God with a very brilliant mind and in many fields. But he has experienced a side of church we despise and are ashamed of. Yet we pick up stones to hurl at someone who is criticizing the church we created. I wish he had experienced or seen the loving, redemptive, forgiving, all mighty God I have experienced instead of the hollow deceit and religiosity he has come to know. While I agree with some of his art, there is much I do not. But he expresses his personal journey from religion to atheism that breaks my heart, because what he has experienced and portrays as truth, is far from the truth of God in His word and the Lord I have experienced in my heart. People have been infuriated at his depiction of Christ and use of Christian items. To the stone yielding Christians, consider if Jesus would be congratulating you on your defense of the Bible being torn up or on your prayers to see his prodigal son returned.
    Ashamed is how I have felt at the response of Christians. The school office telephone has not stopped ringing. Eventually the secretary could not deal with the volume and abuse. People went from name calling such as ‘dark lords’ to verbal abuse. As a pastor I have been ashamed by the Christian world at large who have joined a crusade bent on ridicule, anger and abuse all in the name of faith. I may view his artwork as offensive and dishonoring but so has the response of the majority of the Christian body.
    In fact, I am infuriated that such disregard for the current pupils, the well-being of the school and the integrity of the church was negated by a sensational emotional response. As church leaders we can do better, we need to do better! I also ask every parent to please be the adult in this situation. I met with some of the classes. I asked the grade 7 pupils how many of them had seen the display live. Not one. When asked how many had seen the video, 95 percent lifted their hands.”

    • Hi Barry,

      I have read the response from Jason and am also in contact with him. He responded to one of my posts on this. We agree that the pastor did not handle the matter very well. We also agree that in this time where everyone rushes to social media to deal with issues, Christians should be circumspect and obey the Scriptures.

      However, this does not change the view I express in this article, which is that the artwork is in bad taste, regardless what message it seeks to communicate. This is why I make examples of other artists whose message was missed because of the grotesque nature of their artwork. Their message might have been good but their method was not.

  7. “But he has experienced a side of church we despise and are ashamed of. Yet we pick up stones to hurl at someone who is criticizing the church we created”…………………precisely what the general public are saying…..who is teaching and shaping this boys perceptions and aspirations….your community…time to do some introspection…

  8. For the life of me I tried to understand this young fellow’s thinking to perhaps comprehend what could have led him to come up with this kind of artwork, i keep failing at it. Thank you for contextualizing it mfundisi from various angles 🙏🏻

  9. O how devious is Satan! He succeed to make the Church deviate from Her task to preach the gospel by getting her so engaged with the world. We are so in involved with the political and social matters that we do not make Disciples. We are so afraid of persecution and hurting people’s feelings that we allow humanism and not God setting the pace. We are ways busy putting out fires but we do not remove the flame. Please let us follow Jesus. Worship Him and obey His word and commandments. Pray for this young man, write letters to him but let us never be drawn from God’s purpose and remember Jesus said:” I will build My church and the gates of Hell will not overcome it”. And “I M with you to the end of time”. Amen, let us not fear or faint but finish the race set before us. The gospel of reconciliation and justification through Jesus alone is the message and if we preach that God will complete what He have started. These things are signs of sin. See Romans 2.
    Let us destroy the lies of Satan with the truth of God but be sure you are dressed for the fight in the armour of faith.
    Pray, preach and pressevere people of God and the peace of God be with you always.