The following statement is released in response to recent reactions to Brett Murray’s exhibition Hail to the Thief II at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg. The Gallery has received a letter of demand from attorneys acting on behalf of the ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), to take down the artwork titled The Spear, threatening a court application should we fail to do so. Our attorneys have written to the ANC rejecting this demand.
Goodman Gallery Director Liza Essers comments that: “It is a sad day for South Africa when creative production is being threatened with censorship from our ruling party. While the views expressed by our artists are not necessarily those of the Gallery, we support our artists’ freedom of speech and expression and encourage them to show work that challenges the status quo, ignites dialogue and shifts consciousness.”
The Goodman Gallery has a long history in South African art and has, from the outset, supported and encouraged artists to exhibit their works and express their views, despite the strictures of apartheid. It was involved in the seminal Art Against Apartheid exhibition in 1985 and held shows that spoke out against the repressive apartheid regime. Central to the gallery’s vision is the building and promotion of cultural activism and social commentary. South African artists developed a distinctive mode of artistic production during the era of resistance art and this ethos has continued into post-apartheid democracy, with contentious issues of current social injustice being powerfully confronted by both older and new generations.
Brett Murray has always been an artist who uses satire within his work to convey particular messages about socio-political conditions. For decades he has recontextualised familiar images and phrases in order to challenge perceptions and trigger dialogue. He began challenging the status quo during in the 1980s, when he was a vociferous critic of the apartheid government, and continues to do so. We feel that Brett’s depictions of our country’s president and ruling party – in artworks that are typical of his oeuvre – are thought provoking, and have certainly stirred a dialogue in South Africa in the week since his exhibition opened.
As we would with all of our represented artists, the Goodman Gallery whole-heartedly supports Brett in his creative endeavour and believes that the controversies surrounding this show will generate a valuable dialogue about contemporary South Africa. But the works in no way infringe South African law, with the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in our Constitution. Brett’s work is a classic example of this protected free speech, being both political speech and artistic expression. Freedom of speech and free political dialogue are central to our democracy, and South African artists will hopefully continue to participate in our society in this way. We will resist attempts at censoring the Goodman Gallery or the artists that we represent, and jealously guard the hard-won freedoms our country’s Constitution guarantees.