In Brett Murray’s latest exhibition, hosted by the Goodman Gallery, entitled “Again Again”, we encounter a, perhaps unexpected, encore after things went rather (s)pear-shaped with his controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma in 2012. While the question has been raised amidst death threats and a temporary uprooting of his family, whether, (as dubbed by critic Brenda Atkinson) South Africa’s dark prince of pop art would ever create political art again, the artist himself claims the exhibition is a ‘continuation of where I left off” but with a “different tone and flavour.” The Spear saga may have indeed done more than just leave a bad aftertaste, having, in Murray’s words “unveiled a self-consciousness, a cross-questioning and a doubt…an acute self-censorship, which is exactly what the current drop at the helm would want. Pre-censorship.” Here, we seem to have a bit of a stew: self-censorship seems called for, and yet, would this not align one with the old foe? In the work “Call and Response”, in what appears to be detention work for a naughty white boy, one panel displays a line-by-line reiteration “I must not make political art”, opposing on a second panel, a single statement, “You are a corrupt f_ck.” Clearly, a rebellious retort, a comeback aimed straight at the head of leadership! And yet, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, has the artist not proposed ‘the self’ as a second signified? Murray states that social commentators are not simply pointing (or giving?) accusatory fingers, but are driven by an internal and private process, and that: “I am no longer…rattling the cages of the establishment. I am the establishment!” Then, in seemingly an afterthought asks: “Have I sold or just bought in?”
Perhaps, questions like these are what are leaving the artist standing like a “Nagapie in the Headlights”. This self-portrait, a wide-eyed, paint-and-peruke free photograph of Murray, greets one at the door to the main exhibition space, but could easily be missed when eagerly entering the excitement beyond. Here, we are free to roam in a space occupied by ‘above the belt’ critters and critiques: authoritarianism, censorship and a Murray-stance on the state of the nation are encompassed in parodying revolutionary propaganda imagery, cartoons, confronting word art and sculpture, and also perhaps just a dose of straightforward bull-stubbornness on behalf of the artist.
Not unlike William Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose”, Murray seems to have tapped into Nicolai Gogol’s satiric commentary on the Bureaucracy. Here, the self-important nose of an official leaves his face to, not only procure a higher rank, but also enjoy a finer life than its owner. Upon discovering his strong-willed sniffer’s act of separation, the owner asks the question, “Will I ever be able to flirt again?” In this show, there are, in fact, quite a pageantry of noses: some, long and allegorical, such as in the Pinocchioan protuberance of “Lying Pig” and the upward-curling trunk of “The Little Elephant in the Room”, and others round and stubby—plastic clownish conks sported by the likenesses of jokers, kings, monsters, and revolution-poster youths . While, perhaps too uncharitable to participate in a Red Nose Day, “Mr Charmer”, a joker in polished, stainless steel, at least seems to be enjoying a bit of per(SONA)l comic relief, the words “heh heh heh” engraved to memorialize the cheeky parliamentary chuckle in more than just a meme . Someone, who is, however, not having quite so much fun, is his colourful counterpart: a joker who has been banished to the toilet for unabashedly bearing the name of ‘the one who shall not be named’ and officially ousted as a part of the exhibition.
But, the show is definitely not all fun and games. We are reminded, perhaps literally, due to the choice in lighting, rendering dark corners and ominous shadows, that there exists a darker, or more tragic side to satire. While ridiculed, images depicting Frankenstein’s monster are no less disconcerting, and we cannot help but feel the oppressive power pervading the canvasses upon which a threesome of tyrants tower over us in all their accolades. These tyrants, particularly Muammar Gaddafi and a cycloptic Mobuto Sese Seko are, as his title suggests, rendered blind by a kaleidoscopic mirroring. This mirroring, is often referenced in the show in works such as ‘Replicate’ and ‘Again Again’, bronze sculptures, the latter of two back to back bulls, and again with two of his signature gorillas, “The Fundamentalists”, bumping heads while bearing forward with fists clenched. Rather than reference the ‘self-proclaimed fundamentalist’, Jacob Zuma, another gorilla standing in ‘the naughty corner’, is named “Self Portrait”: the trope, perhaps due to an act of defiance, having been separated from the troop. Where the artist, however, does not intend to separate himself, are from the sleepwalkers in his series “Somnambulance”, having named one ‘Brett’, and another ‘Sanell’, after his wife. Life-sized and realistically-proportioned, these less ‘playful’ metal and gold leaf sculptures allow the viewers to find themselves involuntarily among the ranks of the sleepers—of those who follow blindly, accepting leadership incompetence without questioning. The placing of ‘the self’ within the figurative prosomniac masses may well be in answer to the question, “who are the people?” that followed President Zuma’s contradictory speech at the ANC’s 30th birthday celebration earlier this year. In the speech, the president extends one hand of invitation to all South African citizens, black and white, to belong to ‘the people’, while, on the other, especially in relation to land-ownership issues, feels the need to restrict such an inclusive definition by adjectives such as ‘indigenous’ and ‘African’.
Amidst the darkness, however, we are entertained by metaphors making light of Zuma’s portrayals by the media. Recalling his edifying words on the duration of ANC rule “Until the Second Coming” shows a smallish, hallowed golden bull, descending from its gallery ceiling heaven, and this time, in “The Quest” unlike in “The Spear”, the metaphorical “Emperor’s (here Napoleon’s) New Clothes”, are not only visible to all, but extravagant to a tee. One, however, cannot easily make light of the sad coupling of Madiba’s inaugural words: “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…” in “Never Again Again” ,with the personal, and yet presidential declaration, that history shall, in fact, repeat itself, as in the name of the title “Again and Again”.