Did Brett Murray regret painting The Spear? It has been five years since that question was on everyone’s lips and, sitting across from him at his Woodstock studio in Cape Town, it remains pertinent.
The furore that mushroomed like an atomic bomb around this contentious painting that was exhibited at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg as part of the Hail to the Thief II exhibition in 2012 was unprecedented, the stuff of a true life drama. Never had a single art work attracted so much interest and discussion. Nor had it been rejected so vehemently by its subject, President Jacob Zuma, who tried to take his then gallery (he is now with the Everard Read) to court to have the artwork removed from display. His followers marched on the gallery. The newspaper that published the image came under fire too, copies of it were burnt during public denouncements, and the Film and Publications Board classified that it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone under the age of 16. Eventually, it was vandalised and removed from public display.
Throughout all this Murray was silent. He didn’t grant any interviews, offer any rebuttals, defend or explain the artwork. Some respected his decision, believing the image’s reception depended on the viewer’s perspective rather than the artist’s intentions, but others were frustrated by it – they wanted him to assert his point of view. In a way his silence presented such a large vacuum that other writers felt compelled to fill it. Everyone from William Kentridge, to Pierre de Vos, Jonathan Jansen to Pieter Dirk Uys all weighed in with responses. There wasn’t an opinionista (or taxi driver) who didn’t throw in their two-cents on The Spear.
Murray enjoyed observing the debate but the vitriol directed at him, culminating in death threats against him and his family, took its toll on him psychologically.
“It was an interesting dialogue but it should have happened in a more measured way,” he observes. Murray was unable to engage with the press or the public during the Spear debacle, as it is colloquially known, mostly because it appears he wasn’t able to – he was so traumatised by events he existed in “a haze of antidepressants and calmettes.”
He was also afraid, that he could add fuel to the fire.
“One angry sound bite or one misquote and I would have sounded like a dick,” he says.
The story was published in The Sunday Times: read the rest here