Bizarre Depiction of the President’s Penis Causes Outrage in South Africa

Once again, an artist is in hot water over his shocking portrayal of the leader.

Anton Kannemeyer, R Is for Respect (detail).
Anton Kannemeyer, R Is for Respect (detail).
Anton Kannemeyer, <em>R Is for Respect</em>.

Anton Kannemeyer, R Is for Respect.
Image: Courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Once again, the South African government is up in arms over a political cartoon depicting president Jacob Zuma’s penis. The latest piece by artist Anton Kannemeyer is a response to the 2012 controversy surrounding Brett Murray‘s The Spear, a portrait of Zuma featuring his exposed genitals that was vandalized during a show at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

Kannemeyer‘s R Is for Respect shows a giant, disembodied penis floating in the air above a group of angry protesters waving a banner reading “Respect for the president’s penis now!”

The artwork is included in “E Is for Exhibition,” on view at Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg. (Kannemeyer is also represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery.) Additional works on display include satirical depictions of disgraced paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in the death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, as well as other prominent South African figures.

Murray’s original painting was met with widespread outrage, most notably from Enoch Mthembu, spokesman for the Nazareth Baptist church in South Africa, who told the Times of South Africa that “this man has insulted the entire nation and he deserves to be stoned to death.” (See our list of anti-art comments made by public figures.)

Brett Murray, The Spear. Photo: Denis Farrell, courtesy the AP.

Brett Murray, The Spear.
Photo: Denis Farrell, courtesy the AP.

The government has been quick to condemn Kannemeyer’s work as well. Presidential deputy minister Buti Manamela, who threatened to shut Goodman Gallery for exhibiting The Spear, told the Guardian the cartoon was “quite sickening,” adding “we don’t have time for bigotry and what clearly is racism being projected as art.”

In response, the Kannemeyer told the Guardian that he created R Is for Respect because he felt the negative response to Murray’s work amounted to censorship. “I hope the debate doesn’t stop there. People need to talk about these things.”

Anton Kannemeyer, <em>M Is for Murder and Murder</em>.

Anton Kannemeyer, M Is for Murder and Murder.

Kannemeyer, a white artist, is known for refusing to shy away from tackling potentially uncomfortable depictions of race and politics in his work. In 2012, the Times Live noted that when searching for the artist online, “the third suggestion offered by the search engine is ‘Anton Kannemeyer racist.'”

“It makes a considerable difference that the artist is white,” wrote Charl Blignaut, arts editor at the City Press newspaper. “It’s a trope—the rampant black penis—that plays into a painful history of not only the exoticisation of the black male body but also the fear of the virile black male that subconsciously drove so much of apartheid policy, alcohol and drug legislation, and separationist philosophy.”

According to the exhibition website, Kannemeyer’s satirical work “engages the larger themes of race, sex, class, and politics, reminding us that even though the times have changed, many debates have not fundamentally evolved.”

The reference to Zuma’s penis is particularly fraught considering the rape charges filed against him  in 2005, although he was ultimately acquitted.

Anton Kannemeyer’s “E Is for Exhibition” is on view at Stevenson, Johannesburg, October 1–November 13, 2015. 


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