Who is Brett Murray?

2012-05-20 09:31
Charl Blignaut
Parody is part of this Cape Town artist’s arsenal

Brett Murray, the satirist who sparked a wave of controversy this week, is an established South African artist who is best known for his sculpture.

At 50, the Capetonian, who is married to a fellow artist with whom he has two children, has staged numerous exhibitions locally and abroad.

His work is housed in all the important local collections and has won several awards, including Standard Bank Young Artist in 2002.

As a teacher, he established the sculpture department at the University of Stellenbosch.

Murray, who often uses populist images to deliver a critique, has frequently generated controversy, though nothing to match this week’s tsunami of outrage.

When he won the Cape Town Urban Art competition in 1998, his sculpture of an African curio sprouting Bart Simpson heads was almost not erected in Cape Town’s city centre.

Some felt he was insulting African culture, others just found it ugly, and protesters threatened to disrupt the unveiling.

Murray said he was depicting Africa as a dumping ground for Western culture.

Raised by a hard-drinking Nationalist father who worked as an architect and a more liberal graphic designer mother, Murray attended Rondebosch Boys’ High School.

At the University of Cape Town, he was a star art student.

He won four awards and four scholarships, and actively engaged in anti-apartheid student politics and the battle against conscription into the army.

Murray’s first major show was in 1989 at The Market theatre’s gallery.

He made sculptures of buffoon-like Afrikaners and soldiers, depicting the state president as an archetypal Boer leader with a target on his hat, slumped forward after being struck by a missile.

The show raised the ire of a right-wing group, which threatened to disrupt it.

In 2007 his gallery – under different ownership – refused to exhibit a wall sculpture containing the words “Osama bin Cohen” in large gold letters, fearing reprisal from both the Muslim and Jewish communities.

In 2009, at a fancy new sculpture park that was being described as a revolution in local art, he hung a huge work that read: “Pass me the cucumber sandwiches darling, we are having a revolution!”

Hail to the Thief I opened in 2010 in Cape Town and attracted vocal opposition from a parliamentary worker, assistant to Max Sisulu, the Speaker in Parliament.

“The raw power of Murray’s work lies in its ability to strike the viewer in that place where a laugh and a gasp are indistinguishable,” wrote art critic Hazel Friedman a few years back.

“Distorting our history and our culture, and calling it art earns a different and more straightforward label: we should call it, simply, bad art,” wrote artist Judy Seidman about Hail to the Thief I (see correction)

“Parody is part of the satirist’s arsenal and it is through this that I hope to expose the new pigs at the trough. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on where you stand, nothing is sacred,” responded the artist.

» The quote by Judy Seidman was at first incorrectly attributed to Tom de Vriendt.

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