As submitted to The Daily Maverick.
Yiull Damaso’s painting of an imagined autopsy of Nelson Mandela has provoked outrage similar to that generated by Zapiro’s recent Mohammed cartoon. The outrage is similar in its severity, and unfortunately also similar in its knee-jerk thoughtlessness. Most troubling, the similarities extend to having to hear yet another argument in favour of the censoring of free expression on the grounds of cultural or religious sensibilities.
The painting, adapted from Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”, shows a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on. It is, of course, the portrayal of Mandela as deceased that is causing most of the consternation, on the grounds that this portrayal consists, variously, of witchcraft, disrespect, a violation of dignity, and a “insult and an affront to values of our society” – at least according to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.
As with the Zapiro cartoon, we can and certainly should ask whether images like these are in unacceptably bad taste. If they are, we should say so, and hope that we can persuade artists of the legitimacy of our point of view. Having fewer offensive artworks in our purview would no doubt make for a more comfortable life. But one person – or one group, no matter how large – does not have the authority to define what counts as unacceptable and what doesn’t, except within their own cultural universe.