Robyn Sassen, a freelance art critic based in Johannesburg, says artists still have freedom of expression. “There was a major public outcry and a march around that work and that exhibition, which effectively got the Goodman Gallery into headline news but Brett Murray was not actually persecuted or jailed or directly censored. The situation took on its own momentum as a public thing” she says of The Spear incident.

But just how far can South African artists use their freedom of expression without infringing on the rights of others? Sassen says that artists can take their right to freedom of expression pretty far. “From a constitutional point of view, there are issues like hate speech, but when it comes to the interpretation of visual art, there are loop holes in the name of opinion and so on. I do believe that as a Western country, we are not that bruised by an inability to exert freedom of expression. Yet,” says Sassen.

Our constitution deals with freedom of expression in section 16 of the Bill of Rights. It states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes: freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.” It continues to state in subsection two that the right to freedom of expression “does not extend to propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

What constitutes hatred based on race, gender, ethnicity or religion is debatable as much by the spectator of the art as by the artist themselves. However, once a work is published or put on display, the artist has no control over how the work is interpreted.

Artists and entertainers play a big role in helping people in society cope with certain socio-political issues they may disagree with. They can help inspire action among the public that can help to generate change that will mend social injustices.

Theatre designer, Sasha Ehlers agrees and adds that art also allows you to push boundaries. Ehlers says, “You can say things that on a lot of other arenas you can’t say. My feeling is that the more sort of a backlashing that you get, the more controversy around something, the more you’ve actually made your point. If no one is sort of responding or talking about what you are doing, then have you really made an impact?”

A sure sign of the power of artistic expression as a key role player in social change are the artists who fought for freedom during the apartheid regime. Looking back at South Africa’s history before its first non-racial democratic elections, music and theatre played a huge role in expressing the oppression. Famous musicians like Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masikela and Miriam Makeba used music not just to entertain people but also to serve as a voice for the oppressed. The same can be said about theatre. Sarafina is a famous play that carried an important message of revolution through artistic expression.

If South Africa is to be a truly free and democratic society, today’s artists cannot always paint a pretty picture of a positive rainbow nation. Last year Ayanda Mabulu’s Marikana painting, Yakhalinkomo Black Man’s Cry, depicted the president stepping on a miner’s head. It was removed from last year’s Joburg Art Fair for a short period by the organisers of the Art Fair for fear that it would be offensive to the fair’s government sponsors. After protests from artists it was put back on display. “It reflects a naiveté on the part of the organisers who felt they could make decisions of this nature, and it reflects an offensive sense of entitlement on the part of private sponsors to muscle their way into an arena where their opinion is neither warranted nor necessary,” Sassen says.

Art is a wonderful means of communcation, however, the fact that our freedom of expression may be threatened by select individuals, questions the current state of our democracy.

Photo: Eddie Mafa

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