Emboldened: Political art, for which presidents are fair game

Inside galleries, onstage and on film, the story of Africa in 2012 was well projected.

In some instances, it was the public responses to the arts and their creators that best illustrated the diverse forces shaping Africa.
There were deaths of artist here and there too.

Down in South Africa, The Spear, a controversial painting, left the world debating on where to draw the line between media freedom and respect for privacy. The satirical painting by Brett Murray, a Cape Town artist, depicted South Africa’s president with his genitals exposed. The artist told Cape newspapers that the work was an “...attempt at humorous satire of polity, power and patriarchy.”

The painting has generated a debate that “clearly engages with important legal and constitutional issues,” gallery owner Liza Essers said in a statement.

Interestingly, President Zuma chose to see the painting from a angle, likening it to rape.

“The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity,” Mr Zuma complained, though he later withdrew a case against the painter in what appeared a strategic move ahead of the 2014 elections.

Later in the year, South Africa was thrown into mourning. Alf Kumalo, the apartheid photographer who was Nelson Mandela’s photographer, was eulogised as one of the key players in the chronicling of the country’s history.

And there was more action around the continent. In Libya, a number of exhibitions and publications on the country’s late long time rule Muammar Gaddafi were released. Most notable was Yan Pei-Ming’s Gaddafi’s corpse, October 21, 2011. Measuring 4.0 metres by 2.8 the oil painting in shades of grey by the Chinese painter depicts the dictator’s body lying on the ground, in a mortuary chamber in the Libyan city of Misrata.

In November, the country also witnessed its first video art exhibit that proved a hit in Tripoli, drawing scores of spectators in a country emerging from 42 culturally barren years under the regime of the slain leader.

Elsewhere, it was censorship that illustrated the continued contest between creators pushing towards new limits and leaders trying to maintain the status quo.

Uganda’s action against The State of the Nation best illustrates this. Seen as critical of President Yoweri Museveni’s leadership, the play, co-directed by John Ssegawa, was banned by the Media Council, even after staging at the country’s National Theatre in Kampala.


Earlier, a British theatre producer landed in trouble for attempting to stage a play about gays, in Kampala. The River and The Mountain is a comical play that revolves around a gay businessman killed by his employees.

Twakoowa, an unflattering song deemed critical of President Museveni’s long rule, was also banned from playing on the country’s radios.

In Nairobi, some audacious underground artists registered their protest, against the ruling elite’s greed, through strategically placed graffiti. Inspired by photographer Boniface Mwangi, the ruling elite were portrayed as insensitive vultures, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

There was also the case of Kenyan musicians arrested for singing against national unity. This was in relation to the ongoing cases at The Hague. The singers were accused of rallying their community to support one of their own, through music.

The Timbuktu saga in Mali, where centuries-old national heritage sites suffered damage from Islamist rebels, inspired graffiti outrage in North Africa.

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