On the 6th August 2009, the Innovative Women Exhibition took place at Constitutional Hill to display the art of upcoming female talent in South Africa. The Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, took offence to one of the pieces of artwork by Nandipha Mntambo, and stormed out of the exhibition, labelling her art as “pornography”. Some agreed with the Minister, taking offence at the photograph, and others criticised the Minister for being narrow-minded and violating the right to freedom of expression. I believe that the Minister shattered Mntambo’s right to express herself at the very place where all our rights are kept sacred, Constitutional Hill. The right to freedom of expression is legitimate unless the expression is one of hate or offence, such as pornography. The definition of pornography given by The Collin’s Dictionary is, “writings, pictures or films designed to be sexually exciting”. According to Mntambo, her intent was not to sexually arouse, but to pay a tribute to Picasso’s Minotaur.
The right to freedom of expression goes hand-in-hand with the right to freedom of thought. Everyone has a right to form an opinion and to express how they feel, as the Minister did. The Rape of Europa could be seen as offensive, as it is candid and outspoken. It depicts a Minotaur leaning dominatingly over a naked girl. Mntambo is the character of both the girl and the Minotaur. Many perceive this piece as showing a ‘rape’, as is suggested by the title. The Minister had every right to react to the art in the way she did. She had a right to think freely.
However, it may be argued that the Minister was very hypocritical and did not practise what she preached by walking out of the exhibition and slandering Mntambo. She brought her emotions into her job, which ended up harming the artist whom she was meant to be supporting. It would have been understood if she was offended, and decided to give that certain piece a miss (right to freedom of thought), but by insulting Mntambo’s work, she violated the artist’s right to freedom of expression, everything that art stands for. The Minister’s comments caused unnecessary hurt to South African art. Xingwana chose her right to freedom of expression over Mntambo’s, and, thereby damaged Mntambo’s career. Offence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
There is a very fine line when it comes to freedom of expression, and offensive material. People may always choose to be offended at what they want, but it was incredibly inappropriate of Xingwana to criticize Mntambo, in her capacity as Minister of Arts and Culture. Xingwana’s mandate as the Minister of Arts and Culture for South Africa is to support South African talents and endeavours, not to judge them. Art will always be highly emotionally-charged and people will often be offended by certain pieces.
Although Mntambo’s photograph is titled The Rape of Europa, it does not, in fact, depict a rape. This piece was simply a more aggressive rendition of the Picasso version. “The piece plays on historical, artistic and mythological references. It is based on a sketch by Pablo Picasso of a Minotaur, a mythological creature who is half bull and half human, caressing a girl,” said Mntambo. Nandipha Mntambo is very talented. Her work is occasionally controversial because, as she said in an interview at which I was present, she loves to test the waters of what is considered acceptable in society and what crosses the line. She is a very open-minded, independent and forward-thinking young woman, who loves to challenge the walls society so often builds. She enjoys making contentious pieces of art in order to see how people react. One aspect of society she enjoys transforming into art is the idea of beauty. She often works with cow hides, moulding them to form the shape of her own body. She does this in order to see how a small change can turn beauty into disgust. She has a very womanly, toned body, with very little hair, which society finds appealing. But when she makes a product of her own body using cow hide (with hair), people find this repulsive. However, The Rape of Europa was not meant to be provocative. Mntambo was flabbergasted by the Minister’s accusations against her. She was upset that such a woman, the Minister of Arts and Culture of our nation, would be so offended by something that was, in her eyes, non-litigious. In the same interview, she called the Minister “closed-minded” and “conservative”, unwilling to be objective to the new ideas of today.
The Minister went on to issue a press statement calling the photograph “immoral and offensive”. Xingwana clearly did not understand the historical significance of Mntambo’s piece, showing up her general ignorance of art. The Minister should have been briefed about the context of the art prior to the exhibition. However she was not, and decided to react from her gut to what was in front of her. The Minister then added that she was concerned about the suitability of the art for minors present at the gallery. But surely that is the role of parents to decide what to censor for their children, and not the job for our Minister of Arts and Culture? It seemed as though the Minister realised her actions had been wrong, and was trying to justify them by any ridiculous excuse.
In the end, most people sided with Mntambo, and agreed that Xingwana had tainted the artist’s right to express what she wanted. I think that a definite line cannot be drawn, relating to how far freedom of expression goes. Every circumstance is different. However if the expression is one of hate, the line may be drawn by a thick, black, permanent marker. But if the expression is simply offensive to a certain person, that expression must unquestionably never be shunned. We all need to keep an open mind and not have our permanent markers so readily available.