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Of art and nudity: The politics of interpretation


Of art and nudity: The politics of interpretation 

Tshegofatso Rasekgotoma 

In 2010, Ayanda Mabulu held an exhibition and a painting entitled ‘Better Poor Than a Rich Puppet’ was part of it. The painting illustrated President Jacob Zuma and Desmond Tutu with exposed genitals. Two years later the Goodman gallery exhibited one of the paintings that would cause a stir in South African post-apartheid era. The painting, titled “The Spear”, by Brett Murray, depicted Jacob Zuma looking dapper in a suit posing in a Lenin style, with his penis exposed. The painting was later defaced. In the same year, Mabulu caused uproar with the debut of his “Umshinwam” painting. This was another painting exposing Zuma’s genitals. The most recent painting of the president, dubbed the “Zupta painting” by Mabulu exhibited in July 2016, was the most shocking. It demonstrated the president licking Atul Gupta’s behind.  

In other parts of the world, Illma Gore shared a portrait of a naked Donald Trump with his genitals exposed. For that, she received a punch in the face and death threats, because her painting was deemed “disrespectful”, “morally unacceptable”, “disturbing” and “culturally immoral”. These were sentiments shared by many about the painting.This takes us to the essence of the art. What makes it, and why is it created? What is it meant for? And the question remains, can we really look at art from one dimension, the cultural and morally correct dimension that is? What about the symbolism behind the piece of art?  

Art is meant to push boundaries, to enlighten, amuse, provoke and offend; depending on who is listening or viewing it. Art is created with certain aspects in mind, and these are the underlying aesthetics of creativity. The content, the form, the purpose and the historical context of a work of art should always be taken into account when interpreting art. 

Connotations of nudity in art 

Art represents the times we live in. Nudity in art, and its disgruntled responses, has been around for decades. .The intent of the production of art stems from something rooted in our surroundings, something we see every day.  

Ellen Graves, a former Associate Lecturer at the Arts Open University in Scotland, suggests that the nude is mainly a phenomenon of Western art.  At first, nakedness represented innocence, sensuality and purity. As the time went on, the nude became a powerful subject through which humans can not only be praised but also be condemned and criticized. Modern and contemporary artists such as Mabulu and Murray have adopted the latter.   

Although in ancient Greek nudity was seen and is still seen as a celebration of the body, it holds connotations of glory and moral excellence but in other cultures it’s associated with shamefulness and disrespect. In today’s world, it is used as the depiction of moral decay, a way of exposing corruption, irresponsibility and used as a tool to critique public figures and politicians. It is used as a form of protest and rather than celebration. In modern African culture, absence of clothes represents shamefulness and defeat. Nudity is something that should be hidden from the word, because once one’s genitals are exposed to the world, their dignity crumbles. 

On interpretation of art 

When it comes to the expression of art, and its interpretation thereof, there is no guarantee that everyone will share the same sentiments. As the case with Mabulu and Murray’s works, the public’s reaction was twofold, some were angered and others not bothered. But what is it really that angered people?  

From which perspective do we view art? The question arises again. From a perspective of an African child, the portrayal of elders in their nude form by an African child can be viewed as disrespect of the highest order. Mabulu was, as the society expected, supposed to have shown some respect to the president because he knows better as an African child. Murray on the other hand, was labeled racist, because he is white and had painted the black president in a disrespectful manner, and that could mean no much respect would be expected from him because he is not an African.    

Artists create not necessarily to offend, but to express. When encountering such art as that of Mabulu and Murray, with the genitals attracting the attention, one should dig deep and try and establish the reasons behind the creation of the piece, rather than judging the artist. Art such as poetry, film, literature as well as visual is created to communicate more than just what we see or hear, but also arouse feelings as well as conversation about the subject at hand. Nude art should be able to force one to look at more than just the genitalia exposed, but the message the artist is trying to convey to the audience. 

As the political and social landscapes change, there is no doubt that more artists will come out and express their views using nudity. Here are some of the things one should take into account when they are faced with a piece of art that forces them to react because of the genitals exposed, rather than the underlying message intended. 

Look at, and explore the art piece in depth. 

There is no guarantee that nude art pieces, especially in modern times, will not shock the viewer once they are released for the first time. But after the shock, looking at the art piece for the second time will shock the viewer less, and the more one views it the less they react with anger or disgust towards it. This here is an opportunity to look beyond the “offensive, disrespectful and disgusting” part of the art piece, and dive beyond the surface, so as to explore the underlying message the artist intends to share with the world. The background and surrounding objects are bound to help you connect the dots and see beyond just the offensive parts exposed to one’s “face”. The trick is to focus the subversions of the work.  

Interrogate the title of the piece. 

Titles offer a gateway to the idea hub of the artist. They help the audience delve into what could have been the inspiration behind the creation of the art-piece, and help them establish the underlying message quickly. Sometimes the titles may be abstract, but they still help the audience with a clue about what the piece of art could be representing. The titles of art pieces always have a way of informing one’s perception about what they see.  

Your reaction to the piece of art says a lot. 

You need to stop and ask yourself about your reaction to the piece of art, and why you have reacted in that way. How does it affect you? Does the art piece somehow invoke something in you? Perhaps the need to engage in conversation, does it remind you of something, do you feel compelled to critique, does it make you see the subject with a different view? You are bound to feel something when you look at a piece of art, and that emotion may help you get the bottom of the questions you may have about the piece of art at hand. Nudity is a sensitive subject, and as such that it must be viewed from more than one angle, taking the artist’s intention and context into consideration. “The visual experience in art is not simply a looking, but a gazing–an intentionally directed action that opens the gazer to certain possibilities”.   


Tshegofatso Rasekgotoma works as a Library and information studies graduate, former TeachSA ambassador, a literature enthusiast and a lover of all things informative.