Art on the front line

2012-05-27 10:00
Charl Blignaut
South African artists have a long history of courting controversy and challenging authority. Contentious works have often been greeted by violence and have elevated their creators to international fame.

Charl Blignaut digs out some of the works that have caused consternation over the years


WARNING: This article contains a history of art that has offended. The pictures may offend you. Some of it is not suitable for young readers.




1 The late Trevor Makhoba’s 1999 painting Pain in the Mountains was recently shown in a landmark exhibition looking at HIV, Aids and antiretrovirals.

Traditional ceremonies are always a controversial theme in our art.

One of KwaZulu-Natal’s great painting masters, Makhoba here depicts, mythologises and critiques an initiation ceremony involving circumcision.

In recent years the KwaZulu-Natal government has been promoting clinical circumcision as a means to combat HIV.


2 and 3. In the apartheid years it was illegal to depict the image of Nelson Mandela, but several resistance artists did.

Artists like Phuthuma Seoka also lampooned apartheid’s leaders. In 1985 he made a work showing PW Botha as blinkered and comical.

Such artworks shown in galleries were seldom banned, but once they became posters, T-shirts or postcards, they were halted at once by the state censors, who would list the offending articles in the government gazette.

A simple postcard of Miriam Makeba by Sue Williamson attracted the ire of the security service when it was offered to a Grahamstown bookshop to sell and they reported her to the state.


4 Performance artist Steven Cohen uses the streets as his gallery and always leaves controversy in his wake. Here he is thrown out of Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria during a right-wing celebration in 1998.

The artist has frequently been beaten and arrested for his firebrand form of politics. He was also refused entry to a local contemporary dance festival.


5 Art student Kaolin Thompson’s Useful Objects, showing a vagina as an ashtray, so enraged then deputy speaker in the National Assembly Baleka Kgositsile (now Mbete) in 1996 that she demanded it be banned for insulting black women.


6 When Candice Breitz showed her Rainbow Series in 1996 she proved the rainbow nation was more a dream than a reality. She was severely criticised for cultural insensitivity.


7 Satirical artist Anton Kannemeyer has frequently lampooned South Africa’s leaders. This, one of his tamer works, was his take on Thabo Mbeki in 2003.


8 The iconic 1961 painting The Black Christ by Ronnie Harrison depicts Chief Albert Luthuli being crucified by Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster.

It was considered blasphemous and subversive by the government, which detained and tortured the artist for seven days.

The painting was smuggled out of the country and only returned 30 years later to hang in the national gallery in Cape Town.


9 A painting of Nelson Mandela undergoing an autopsy was condemned by the ANC in 2010 for violating Madiba’s dignity.

The artist, Yiull Damaso, said he wanted people to confront death. A public storm raged around the work.


10 In 2010 photographer and activist Zanele Muholi’s depiction of lesbian couples embracing so enraged then arts minister Lulu Xingwana that she stormed out of a state-sponsored exhibition, calling the work pornographic.

The art world responded with fury and a scandal was born.


11 In 1990 an angry representation debate centred on Steve Hilton-Barber’s photographic essay of a Northern Sotho initiation ceremony.

Outraged critics said he had the right to portray a sacred ritual but unknown opponents broke into the gallery and removed the works.


12 Sculptor Samson Mudzunga created a storm of outrage in Venda culture when, throughout the late 1990s, he challenged the myths of the sacred Lake Fundudzi.

An inter-tribal war broke out when Mudzunga carved a coffin and buried himself in it in the lake to prove there were no zombies there.


13 When Brett Murray won a public sculpture competition in 1998, his work Africa created much heated debate.

Depicting a West African artwork sprouting Bart Simpson heads, he was accused of insulting African culture and making the streets of Cape Town ugly.

Radio stations ran polls and protesters threatened to destroy the work, which took a year to finally see the light of day. Murray said he was depicting Africa as a dumping ground for Western culture.


14 Another sculptor to tackle tricky issues head on is Gordon Froud.

His Jacob XX is “a conglomeration of sperm babies” referring to “President Zuma’s penchant for reproduction”.

The work debuted in 2011 at the KZNSA gallery as part of an exhibition about HIV and Aids. Unlike Murray’s Zuma work, Jacob XX was uncontroversial and many visiting school tours were taken to see it.