Metal 'n Bone


Social Representation in Brett Murray’s 'The Spear' 

Social Representation Theory creates a focal point in the social dimensions that contribute to the individual. It considers the individual to be, essentially, a social being continuously affected by his environment. The affect can grow to the extent where it determines her cognitive functioning and behaviour. The theory therefore lays particular emphasis on the knowledge system that sustains the behaviour of a social group, as well as the way this group is represented in a larger society. In our globalized and mediated world, these representations can cause conflict between social groups when a particular group is misrepresented in public. The result might be an open confrontation between two – or more – ideologies like in the case of The Spear controversy in South Africa. It acts as an appropriate example of the potential tension social representations can cause when there is a clash in ‘truth’ between two knowledge systems, or social groups. This essay will briefly discuss Social Representation Theory (SRT) and use it to explore the conflict caused by The Spear controversy. It will look at the social representations present in the actual painting to contextualize the issue. Finally, it will explore the various ideologies present and how they contradict each other to result in this recent disagreement, to show how South Africa is – as a nation – uniquely susceptible to encounters of this kind.

Social representations refer to the ideas, thoughts, images and knowledge which members of a collectivity share: consensual universes of thought which are socially created and socially communicated to form part of a ‘common consciousness’. (Augoustinos, 1998)

The use of signs to communicate and sustain the common knowledge of any social group becomes extremely important in SRT. Within any social group there are signifiers of ideas that reinforce the knowledge system that governs that group (Hall, 1997). Social representations therefore create categories as a way of defining oneself in two ways. First it aids in creating a sense of the self as part of a social group. Secondly, it creates a binary between the self and the other as it contrasts with other social groups and their representations (Hall, 1997). Within Social Representation Theory, this method of categorization is known as anchoring. Once a social representation is viewed as undeniably true it becomes a concrete fact among the members of the social group, and so a part of the group’s common knowledge. This process is referred to as objectification (Augoustinos & Hewstone, 1998).

With SRT, Augoustinos conceives society as a thinking system that creates – rather than receives – a sense of reality. Social representations create and maintain this sense of reality (1998). Accordingly any society that consists of more than one social group must contain many realities. Augoustinos argues that ideology is the process of maintaining power by reinforcing one social group’s reality on the larger society. With its multi-cultural design, South Africa provides a uniquely interesting society with regards to SRT, since it consists of such a rich variety of different social groups. Each culture exists as a different social group that has its unique set of social representations to support its reality. At the same time they all form part of the larger social group that is South Africa. According to SRT, each one of these groups have their own set of social representations to define itself, while forming part of the larger – national – group that must also possess social representations in the law it follows. 

It is evident from the complicated nature of our social design that South Africa must expect conflict between its social groups, as there will inevitably be clashes in realities. To obscure matters even more, South Africa is also the victim of a fairly recent racist ideology that oppressed certain social groups and advantaged other. The Apartheid regime directly harassed non-white social groups. This created a constant tension between people of different races in South Africa that has a continued affect. With our most recent government the country is free from any political ideology that publicly supports inequality. The Rainbow Nation now governs the country with laws that aim to satisfy its various social groups to achieve and maintain uniformity and peace in society. 

Unfortunately The Spear controversy demonstrated that there is still potential for conflict between groups who both practice their democratic rights. It is the result of the two conflicting constitutional rights: the right to freedom of expression and the right to dignity (Bauer, 2012). As a society, South Africa is governed by a political ideology in its use of laws to determine behaviour. According to law an individual has the right to express himself freely. As an artist, Brett Murray has the right to express his thoughts and emotions through his medium to convey whatever message he chooses. Equally, Jacob Zuma has the right to dignity. The problem with The Spear is that by using his right to freedom of expression, Murray contradicted Zuma’s right to dignity through the way he represented our president (Bauer, 2012). 

The painting is a portrait of Zuma, standing in a pose that suggests movement and agency. This choice of composition, as well as the particular use of colour, directly references a painting of a historical Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin (Lightning, 2012). The major difference in Murrays painting – besides his subject – is the fact that Zuma’s penis is exposed. This element of the painting seriously offended some communities in South Africa as they viewed it as degrading Zuma’s image. The ANC, Zulu culture and certain members of what will be vaguely referred to as the black community of South Africa received this artwork as a direct attack on the social group they contribute to. Considering SRT, it presents a case of the social representations of a social group attacked by the social representations of another group. Zuma, as individual, represents the social groups mentioned above, but not in any fixed way. Rather he simultaneously exists as the leader of the ANC, and a black, Zulu man. Brett Murray, as individual, could form part of various groups. The chosen group would be determined by context. 

As a white man, Murray was immediately perceived to represent the white community, which is vague in its scope. In this case, the previously mentioned history of South Africa becomes an important consideration, as the painting could be seen as racist. At the same time, however, Murray could be perceived as a part of the art community. This provides a context that denies any claims to racism to be replaced with the label, satire. The Spear controversy therefore provides various dimensions with the two sets of binaries it creates: white man vs. black, Zulu man OR artist vs. president. Each binary provides a different context in which two social groups and their social representations must be considered. It is my argument, however, that the range of different perceptions offers no way of achieving any concrete conclusion regarding the painting and that as an artwork it will have different affects on different individuals. 

In the case of the first binary, white man vs. black, Zulu man, the latter community has a right to defend their dignity. Even if the painting is considered a satire, it must be understood that the Zulu community does not necessarily receive art from this – western – point of view (Bauer, 2012). The foundation of the criticism in the satire contradicts the Zulu community’s tradition where a man is motivated to have more than one wife. Also, one of Zulu culture’s ideologies is a great respect for elders. Through the process of objectification it has been anchored in the reality of the social group. In other words, they regard it as their reality. Consequently, The Spear painting directly challenges the common knowledge of the Zulu culture, as Murray is younger than Zuma. To make matters even worse, he is a younger white man, disrespecting an older black man. Since the Zulu culture lives in South Africa it shares the oppressed history of the country and so one must consider the history of racism in this scenario. These circumstances all contribute to the reasoning behind the outraged reaction of the Zulu culture. From their point of view, and considering SRT, the reasons why the painting can be seen as offensive are clear. 

However, this judgment is easily challenged when considering the second binary created by this incident that is of artist vs. president. Within this – different – context there are other considerations that must be studied to present the alternative point of view. The part of Zuma’s identity that allows him to be the target of satire is not his status as a Zulu man. Zuma as the president of South Africa is the part of his identity that ensures him this level of media attention. Therefore that section of Zuma’s character might be the focal point of The Spear painting. As an artist, Murray might be using a particular genre of art, called satire, as a vessel to communicate critique towards Zuma’s political role in the ANC. Zuma’s sexuality has been the topic of various media articles and satires throughout his political career. His many wives and the rape charges created a masculine – if not sexist – reputation for our president. The topic of women’s rights in Zulu culture is the focal point of many feminist groups. However, the rape charges might hold more relevance in Murray’s conceptual design of the artwork (Lightning, 2012). 

Rape is a major issue in South Africa. Apart from the controversial tradition to rape black lesbians, South Africa generally has an alarmingly high prevalence of rape. There is some irony, therefore, in the fact that even our president, who should act as a leader, has been charged with rape. From this point of view Murray’s artwork can be considered as a visual representation of this irony. Within the social group that is the art community, this type of satirical art forms part of the group’s common knowledge as a result of the same process of objectification and anchoring discussed regarding the Zulu culture and a respect for elders. Murray also has an established reputation as a satirical, controversial artist (Lightning, 2012). He has insulted many other social groups through his use of art to question certain norms. Ironically, he opposed the Apartheid regime through his art as well, which causes some doubt regarding his accused racism. Using the very social representations he does to critique Zuma, he also challenged the racist ideology of pre-1994 South Africa. He therefore holds a reputation as a satirical artist as the genre forms a large part of his oeuvre. Viewing him as a racist thus falls suspect to some ignorance on the part of the accusers. 

The Spear controversy is a clash of knowledge systems between one social group and the illusion of another social group. From the point of view of the black, Zulu community, the painting signifies a racist social representation of their group identity. They perceive it as a product of a white social group that harbor racist ideas against them. However, there is no contemporary social group who they can direct their objections to. Even if there was a current social group who openly hated the black community, Brett Murray is not a part of it. In fact, the artist participated in the struggle against the Apartheid regime through his satirical art. There has been no evidence provided to support the allegations that Murray is a racist. In the eyes of the black Zulu community, Murray represents a social group because of his skin colour. But he is neither a part nor supportive of that social category in which they place him. Calling Murray a racist is consequently a statement fueled by prejudice. Ironically, this means that through their inaccurate conclusion that Murray is a racist; the black community making this statement is acting in a racist way. This essay has briefly discussed Social Representation Theory in order to use its ideas to explore The Spear painting and the tension it caused between different social groups in South Africa. It discussed how the incident exposed two sets of binaries in the clash between knowledge systems. These binaries are white man vs. black, Zulu man and artist vs. president. Both the binaries introduce a different context which enjoys the justification of one social group’s set of social representations. However relative our conclusions must be considering the multiple perspectives on this issue, I have asserted that Murray’s identity as an artist and Zuma’s status as the president of a nation holds more authority than their racially based identities. And that although our South African context demands race to always be considered, this particular painting must be viewed out of context for it to be considered racist. The painting’s role as satire and most importantly, the artist’s anti-apartheid history denies any racist allegations. Finally this essay has emphasized the importance of context when using Social Representation Theory to consider social conflicts in South Africa. 


Augoustinos, M. (1998). Social representations and ideology: towards the study of ideological representations. In: Flick, U. The Psychology of the social. Cambridge University Press. 156 – 169. 

Augoustinos, M. Hewstone, M. (1998). Socail attributions and social representations. In: Flick, U. The psychology of the social. Cambridge University Press. 60 - 76. 

Bauer, M. (2012). Freedom vs. dignity in art debate. Available: Last accessed September 27, 2012. 

Hall, S. (1997) The Spectacle of the other. In: Hall, S. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage and The Open University. 225-279. 

Lightning, C. (2012). The Spear. Available: Last accessed September 27, 2012.