In May 2012, white South African artist Brett Murray launched a political firestorm when he unveiled “The Spear,” a satirical portrait of controversial South African President Jacob Zuma. The six-foot-tall painting used Soviet-style iconography to depict the scandal-plagued leader in a defiant pose with his penis exposed. The provocative representation of Zuma, which was later vandalized by two protesters, led to massive street protests and death threats against the artist.
The violent arrest of two protesters and Murray’s trial for defamation have led to widespread discussions throughout South Africa about the role of artists in the fledgling democracy. These debates inspired documentary filmmaker Petter Ringbom to create “Shield and Spear,” which recently had its Washington, D.C., premiere at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. This important film follows some of the most recognized artists in South Africa today and explores what it means to live and work in the changing political climate of South Africa. It raises provocative questions about race, identity, freedom of expression, art and activism in a post-apartheid democracy.
One of the most fascinating artists recorded by Ringbom is the black lesbian photographer and activist Zanele Muholi who was presented with the Index Freedom of Expression Award for Arts in 2013. Her work shines a spotlight on South Africa’s lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex communities and documents the lives of people who are often ostracized and who frequently live under the threat of violence.
Muholi, whose pictures are now on display at the Brooklyn Museum, describes her work as providing a platform for LGBT individuals to tell their stories without being judged. She tells Ringbom, “I do what I do to present a visual history that speaks to us and to inform generations to come. Photography is not a hobby to me. Photography is about politics. Whatever I am producing is to make sure that I push the political agenda. I’m paving the way for the next person who comes after me.”
Ringbom also turns his camera on the men of Smarteez, a unique fashion design collective based in Soweto. Like the other artists in the documentary, they combine art and activism in distinctive ways. They sponsor joyful community-oriented events like a flash mob fashion show featuring models recruited from the street, as well as a free daily school program in an Internet café.
The members of Smarteez also find themselves grappling with issues of gender, sexuality and representation. Designing clothes for men is more fun for them, but designing clothes for women is more profitable. Wearing dresses in public is enjoyable, but can draw unwanted attention. And, being a fashionista can cause people to think you’re gay even if you’re not.
In addition to Murray, Muhali and the members of Smarteez, Ringbom includes footage of BLK JKS, the band that opened for Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keyes at the 2010 World Cup; the white artist Xander Ferreira, who performs as “Gazelle,” a stereotypical African dictator; and, the Afrikaans punk band Fokofpolisiekar (Fuck Off Police Car).
Coming in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in France and rising concerns about police violence against black men across the United States, Ringbom’s documentary is a timely consideration of questions that are being raised around the world. He offers a fresh and unique view of South Africa’s vibrant and diverse artistic communities as they grapple with complex issues of expression and creative identity. While “Shield and Spear” lacks a clear central focus and has its own biases and blind spots, it is a powerful and important contribution to a crucial conversation.
More information about Zanele Muholi’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum can be found at https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/zanele_muholi.
More information on “Shield and Spear” can be found at www.shieldspear.com.
For more information about the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, visit http://africa.si.edu.