Coal mine canary Brett Murray shows the elephant in room

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Perhaps the artwork that most aptly sums up where Brett Murray is at is Call and Response, two panels featuring schoolboyish cursive admonishments. On the left, repeated over and over, is written, “I must not make political art”. On the right, “You are a corrupt fuck!”

The controversy about The Spear, a painting depicting President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, has faded away like a bad dream over the past five years.

The ANC’s backlash to this satirical work “was a profound eye-opener”, he says as we chat in his sunny studio in Woodstock, Cape Town. He regards the debates that emerged as “positive” and carefully followed the “vibrant conversation” and believes “that can only inform me and whoever looks at making similar works or works around uncomfortable, difficult issues going forward”.

“Hopefully, it’s made me a bit wiser; not scared. And I don’t think it has,” he says.

Being a white South African means “you are in an uncomfortable position of privilege that you always have to reflect on in this place”, being especially mindful of the consequences of “trying to articulate uncomfortable things about ostensibly a black government … without self-censoring”.

Taking on Zuma or President Donald Trump is “like shooting fish in a barrel: it’s so easy” but in doing so, one can “lose sight of the big picture, the context”: the many other examples of malfeasance or mismanagement; the tragedies such as the Marikana massacre or the deaths of mentally ill patients relocated from Life Esidimeni hospital.

“I can’t solve any of those problems. I can just look and try to reflect and articulate my horror at those kinds of things in an abstract way, for my own therapy, otherwise I might go mad,” Murray laughs.

His work “is certainly about reflecting what is out there, but ultimately it is reflecting what is in here”, he says, tapping his chest, “trying to forge a path within the landmine-filled landscape of SA”.

While he hopes his art might effect change, “it is more a kind of a therapeutic process and it is very personal — it is trying to establish for myself through making things who I am, where I am, my vision of myself in the world, my vision of the world in which I live. I bring the personal into the political.”

Several “little short fat” sculptures “echo my shape — it is kind of autobiographical physically sometimes”, he says.

A bronze bird, Dead Canary, is another self-portrait. “It gave the warning, no one listened, and then [it] died,” he says.

Murray recalls the posters from his 2012 show, Hail to the Thief II, where the ANC logo was overlaid with the words “FOR SALE” and “SOLD”. Today, “the entire conversation of the nation is about state capture and how the ANC sold out, so the canary in the coal mine — I’m now dead,” he laughs.

While two bronze hyena sculptures, The Predator and Predator’s Head, are a reference to former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s depiction of the country’s leaders as a “predatory elite”, Murray says they were also inspired by watching The Lion King “a million times” with his two children. The little elephant in the room, a series of elephants, was partially inspired by watching Dumbo with them repeatedly. These works are “about life — it’s on that level as well”.

And the elephants’ phallic trunks? “I’m crude. I like dick jokes,” Murray laughs. “And when you are dealing with patriarchy, you are dealing with the dick. For me, it’s very straightforward,” he says.

“Hopefully, there is kind of a thread” connecting this show to his previous works. “I’ve always used text and I have enjoyed the craft of making things.”

He often makes wall sculptures and there are a lot of rotund sculptures that “mirror Asian vinyl toys” and echo the fleshy pieces produced by his Michaelis lecturer Bruce Arnott, in whose studio he used to assist.

A smaller version of Again Again ran at Goodman Gallery Cape Town in 2015. In February, a revised and expanded show opened with the same name for Everard Read Johannesburg. Not only has this allowed more people to see the art, it’s also “a way of completing the body of work”, Murray says.

“I don’t really know what I am making and what it is ultimately going to look like. There are lots of loose ends and ideas and avenues that I would like to pursue that that body of work might generate.”

Honing and refining the exhibition is aided by feedback from friends and the public as well as critical self-reflection. People too often see creative output “as an end-point in a discussion of something”, he says. “It’s not. It is part of an ongoing process and my own responses to works that I have done years ago and more recently shift and change as I go on.”

When the work is publicly displayed, “suddenly it starts to resonate in a completely different way — when people chat to you about it or reflect on it … you can start to see the connections that you have forgotten about and the devils on your shoulder that you should have been listening to but you might not have, and so you go forward with those checks and balances.”

In the 2015 Again Again, he used sculpture to explore, in an abstract way, populism and demagoguery, the rise of the EFF and the alarming similarities and parallels between white and black nationalism. Since then, Trump has moved into the White House, Britain has decided to leave the EU and a wave of right-wing populism has surged across Europe. In noticing a chilling resonance with events unfolding in other parts of the world, “it has been interesting seeing how some of the stuff that I am doing about patriarchy and all those things has a global context”, he says.

The show’s title, Again Again, is a reference to the fact “we’ve come kind of full cycle”. He references Karl Marx’s assertion that, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Murray says history is tragedy repeated twice over — a view captured by a 2.6m sculpture.

A few weeks before the show opens, I accompany him to Bronze Age Art Foundry in Cape Town’s harbour. Masked workers stand around his huge piece, spraying chemicals, the metal sheen slowly turning a moody black. The 40 panels of bronze were cast and welded together. As it took shape over six months, Murray visited frequently, checking details and finishes. “One of the nice things about making big things and public art is working with crews who are incredibly skilled at what they do,” he says, estimating that about 30 people have been involved.

Conjoined, his “dumb, powerful bulls” face away from each other in surly stalemate, posing the question: “What has changed and what has not? It is kind of in perpetuity,” he says.

Again Again runs at the Everard Read Johannesburg gallery until 5 April.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2017 edition of Business Day.

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