Zapiro, Mabulu, and the normalisation of violence against Black Women

“Our pain seen as collateral damage”

Student and writer Naledi Mashishi speaks her mind on the very real and painful issue of violence against women and hits out at the world of South African satire for its representations.

Today has been a bad day on Twitter.

There has been a higher than usual amount of misogynoir and acceptance of violence against black women on my time line. It started this afternoon when Pearl Pillay reported that her ex-boyfriend Siya Nyezi had abused her.  Within minutes, Black Twitter flew into a frenzy tracking down Nyezi and informing his place of work, Investec, that he was an abuser. His ex-girlfriends one by one came out to talk of how he had emotionally abused them as well.

At the same time, there were many who defended Nyezi, saying that it was wrong to expect a man to be fired because of what he did in his personal life. There were even those who suggested that Pearl may have cheated on him, because as we all know, in a misogynist’s world, cheating makes it okay to beat your partner half to death. Then there were those who blamed her for staying as long as she did and even joked that within a few days she would go straight back to him. In other words, the same tiring rhetoric we have to deal with every time the issue of domestic violence comes up.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Pillay and Nyezi. It is far too tiring.

Instead, I want to focus on the other misogynistic nightmare to appear on my time line earlier this evening. Controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu released a painting that is far too upsetting for me to put here. Basically, the painting depicts Jacob Zuma naked, because in the world of satirical art, Zuma must apparently always either be naked or at least have his penis exposed. Black men must be degraded like this constantly while even the worst white men like Hitler and Stalin get to keep their clothes on. Curiously enough, this is exactly what happened in Mabulu’s painting; the figure made to represent white capital was fully clothed. But this is a conversation for another day.

As unnecessary as it was, Zuma’s nudity was the least offensive part of this painting. The worst is what is in the centre where a dark skinned black woman is on all fours.  Zuma’s extremely large penis is forced down her throat while the white figure penetrates her from behind. Her breasts are also being milked against her will. The woman is frightened, in pain, and is depicted in such a cartoonishly racist manner it seems as though Mabulu tore her directly out of a page of an old colonial guide to Natives.
The painting reminds me of this Zapiro classic:

Zapiro image1

And this one:

Zapiro image2

And even this one:

Zapiro image3

All three of these cartoons use women who are clearly codified as black by their hair and lips as symbols for the justice system and in the last cartoon’s case, free speech. Similarly, the painting uses a black woman as a symbol for the ordinary South African taxpayer who is (literally, in this case) screwed over and sucked dry by both the government and corrupt white multimillionaire business owners in the private sector. In all of the above depictions black women’s bodies are graphically brutalised, but this brutalisation is made to come secondary to the grand symbolic message that Zapiro and Mabulu seek to convey in their works.

And that is the problem. In the world of South African satire, when it comes to criticising mainly black male politicians, black women, our bodies, and our pain are seen as collateral damage. Many of those who are criticising the painting are focusing solely on Zuma’s right to dignity, which is a valid concern, but even more concerning is the amount of people who are neither black women nor feminists who are not even mentioning the woman in the painting and what her depiction says of Mabulu’s attitudes towards black women as a whole. Then, of course, liberal Twitter is heaping praises on Mabulu’s work, calling it, “revolutionary”, and “daring” because in South African satirical art, the more brutal the violence against the black woman, the more poignant the social commentary. Black women’s bodies are mere vehicles to be dehumanised and used at will so that male artists can call that dehumanization “social commentary” and profit off of it.

It’s actually hardly surprising. Given that South Africa has shockingly high rates of rape and gender based violence, widespread misogynistic ideals and norms, and prevalent racism, cartoons like Zapiro’s and paintings like Mabulu’s are one manifestation of our violently racist and patriarchal society. In Pillay’s case, the fact that the number of people who would put a man’s employment status over the life of the woman he abused is not at all insignificant is another manifestation of that. The heated argument I got into with someone who attacked a rape victim for not reporting her rapist and instead of attempting to sympathise with her, strongly suggested that she would be responsible if he raped again, is yet another manifestation of that.

And the fact that so much of the commentary surrounding the painting is focused on whether the painting is disrespectful to Zuma, or whether the artist is exposing the truth in a brave, daring way is yet another.

Because in a society where patriarchy and racism exist not just side by side but always connecting and intertwining with one another, the lives of black women don’t matter.

Maybe I should stay off Twitter for a while.

This article was first published on The Plastic Black Girl

Follow @naledimashishi

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