To make satirical art in a period of political uncertainty is tricky. As awful and catastrophic as the Zuma years were for South Africa, at least we were certain about who and what the enemies were: a corrupted political class, its obvious maladministration, and an almost comical indulgence of the collective id. It seemed obvious at the time that the role of artists such as Brett Murray (with his slew of imitators) was to use incisive humour to ridicule the most ridiculous excesses of power. But the jester can only jest so long as there’s material: the very nature of satire is that it upends the logic of its target; if that logic is not so clear, the satirist must readjust.
The post-Zuma years have been marked by a strange confusion, as the public seems engaged in an on-again/off-again relationship with the incumbent, President Cyril Ramaphosa. And while CR certainly has lapses of judgment, he is not given to the same idiocy as his predecessor. As such, he is less likely to be fodder for satirical portrayal.
So, Murray, whose entire career has been marked by a kind of compulsion to speak truth to power, has grappled not with a figurehead and an obvious visual language, as 2012’s ‘Hail to the Thief’ did, casting Jacob Zuma and the phraseology of perverted Sovietism in the role of kleptocrats (2010’s Now Playing at a Town Hall Near You illustrates this). Instead, in ‘Hide’, a show he has been working on for 3 years, he cautiously approaches the nebulous cloud of impulses that is contemporary social media. For someone previously so strident, Murray now perfectly captures the self-censorship and fear that attend public forums: Doubt, a gilded text piece reading ‘ummm…’ makes this indecision palpable, as if one can hear him mentally battling the forces of political correctness and outright uncertainty. As Lucienne Bestall says in one of the catalog essays, ‘the artist questions his convictions, appears distrustful of his own moral certitude.’
Of course, what is immediately interesting about criticizing the hegemony of the ‘Twitter Nostra’, as Murray terms them in Twitter, is the fear of immediate censure, and the fact that to criticize the tendency to be so easily offended is instantaneously deemed offensive. The irony-free po-facedness of it all is something that must bring Murray great glee. But, beyond reveling in the ease and joy of poking fun, the work asks a more serious question about the source of the online mafia’s authority. Do we give this new beast its power by capitulating, by surrendering our freedoms willingly at the slightest hint of threat to our reputations? Or does the power derive from its sheer scale, hinted at by the multiple silhouettes in Navel Gazing and its Perils and Protection, two acrylic paintings from 2020.
Some tropes from previous bodies of work reoccur in ‘Hide’: for one, the deceptively simple junior animals, most notably and beautifully represented by White Elephant, populate much of the show. This mid-sized solid marble sculpture weighs in at over a ton; something in that heft reads like a latent power, and of course, a gravitas, despite the cuteness of the figure. In this uncanniness, Murray continues his interest in making infantilized figures that nonetheless demand us to consider the seriousness of their implications. Similarly, the spirit of the onanistic gorilla in One Party State (2010) reappears, but this time it’s as the two furiously rutting birds of 2018’s Fucking Twitter. My sense of this bronze of two identical birds copulating wasn’t so much of it being funny, or even dirty: rather, that it was about the fervour with which online forums must maintain their homogeneity. The loop must close, we must have consensus, and dissent must be viciously censured.
It was perhaps easier to think about censorship on the occasions of previous exhibitions of Murray’s work: ‘Hail to the Thief’, when it arrived at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, was met with censorship on many levels. Politicians called for the show’s closure, and managed to astroturf some rather frightening protest action outside the gallery, while two unconnected private citizens, one the same day, famously daubed The Spear painting out of a very odd impulse to right the country’s moral compass by destroying art. Even the otherwise venerable Ferial Haffajee, then editor-in-chief of the City Press, buckled under pressure to remove the painting’s image from the online imprint of the paper, and apologized for the offense caused. Likewise, Murray’s satirical work from as far back as his Master’s degree days drew the ire of the state and conservative elements in society, as he gleefully sent up the dumbest elements of the apartheid state and its apparatuses, the police and the army. So, whether it was Zuma in power, or the death-throes of the Nationalist government, the mechanisms of Murray’s satire often followed the same lines: identifying a point of sensitivity, making the work to test the limits of free speech, and using the resultant censorship to gauge the climate of the time.
What is rather more difficult to pin down is the mechanism of self-censorship: how does it operate? Woke, a text piece rendered in marble and gold leaf, might have the answer. The work plays with language in Murray’s characteristic way: the words ‘woke, woker, wokerer’ appear in a vertical list, a kind of absurdist ‘degrees of comparison’ exercise. The work reveals that our contemporary reality is more Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four: social media has engendered a compliance with self-censorship far more effective than any external surveillance model ever could. Murray’s hellish vision of competitive wokeness invokes the kind of ‘virtue Olympics’ in which many of us are engaged online, shoring up our credibility as participants in the culture by signaling our virtue and avoiding controversy. And like the late Alan Crump’s text piece Lull, which similarly used text engraved into a marble plaque, Woke seems to be engaged in recording, even faux-memorializing, the indefinable moment, the invisible forces that shape current discourse. Though it’s not the largest work on the show, it is, for me, the fulcrum around which much of this body of work turns.
‘Hide’ is a powerful exhibition, important in this moment as a record of how terribly wrong the experiment in mass access to public speech has gone. Murray’s own battles and doubts reflect those of a culture punch-drunk from divisive rhetoric and social fracturing. We want to giggle at the laugh lines, but it’s telling that even this reaction is preceded by looking around the gallery space to see who will see us.