Censorship and courage: Looking back at Africa's most controversial art (Warning: NSFW)

A selection of bold, daring and provocative art--this is only for the brave.

IT has been a bad 2014 for African bloggers, and those with social-media-happy fingers. From Kenya, Morocco, Mauritanian, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Egypt, they have been jailed or dragged to court.

Yet their work online still tends to cause less outrage than books and, especially, art. When freedom of expression meets public outrage, we arrive at some of the most controversial artworks produced in Africa in recent years. 

A selection of bold, daring and provocative art makes up this list of six art pieces from around the continent. In one way or another, they challenged the communities they appeared in. Sometimes the artwork offended people’s political sensibilities, sometimes it challenged people’s sense of African social norms and customs. All this boundary-pushing art has inspired conversation, and serves as a rebuttal to anybody who thinks Africa is too conservative to produce counter-cultural art.

Christ in “Sex Retreat” by John Kamicha

In April, Kenyan painter John Kamicha, proved that even the most liberal of outfits in Nairobi – the French cultural centre Alliance Francaise – can only go so far.

They demanded the removal of “Sex Retreat” by Kamicha from the opening of the otherwise progressively titled “Sex and the City” exhibition.

The rest of the material from the 39-year-old Kenyan painter was already edgy enough, but it seemed Alliance Francaise feared hell and brimstone would descend upon it once word about Sex Retreat got out. It featured Christ in Majesty, right arm raised in a blessing surrounded by a number of cut-outs, one of which - small and centre right - was of the Saviour having sex while on the Cross.

It was deemed to be a brush too far.

“The Spear” by Brett Murray, South Africa

In 2012, South African Brett Murray painted a picture titled “The Spear” as part of his “Hail to the Thief” exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The picture illustrated a larger than life, proud Jacob Zuma clad in a suit with his genitals hanging loose. 

While Zuma supporters interpreted the piece as a condescending and derogatory comment on the man’s polygamous ways, the artist believed he was making a statement about greed and corruption. The painting was eventually defaced and the ANC brought a lawsuit against the artist. It spurred a contentious debate in South Africa about freedom of expression and respect.

“China Loves Africa” series by Michael Soi, Kenya

Kenyan artist Michael Soi has never shied away from drawing work that interrogates sexual and racial dynamics. Many of his pieces tend to depict black female sexuality in conversation with powerful men—be they black, white or in one particular series Chinese. Casting a satirical eye on sino-Africa relations, Michael Soi’s “China Loves Africa” series depicts Africa as black prostitutes satiating greedy Chinese men. 

Soi created the series using mixed media on canvas. His works critique what he sees as a neo-colonial dynamic between African countries and Chinese investors. He describes China as “Africa’s sugar daddy.”

Untitled by Canon Rumanzi, Uganda

Canon Rumanzi is one of Uganda’s most uninhibited artistic voices whose works interrogate the myriad ideas that come to his mind. No topic is too sacred for Rumanzi who exhibited a very daring selection of his artworks at Makerere University’s art gallery in 2013 as part of an exhibition titled “Sketching a Civilisation”. 

Among his drawings are works that depict sexual acts, genitalia and the paraphernalia of violence. In one sketch, he illustrates a young man on his knees performing fellatio on a grown man with a giant machine gun by his side. This, in is a country with a zealous media council, anti-pornography laws, and headline-making anti-gay legislation. The work is a commentary on African economic and political domination by the west. 

His piece was a scathing and creative critique of western hegemony, which, no doubt, went over the heads of some unhappy, local art critics. His works, some too kinky for this page, can be seen on his website UrbanUnkindness.

Untitled by Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egypt

Hailing from Egypt, a young feminist artist and activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy has not shied away from controversy with explicit and provocative critiques of sharia law, Islamism extremism and gender oppression. 

On her blog, images of her nude received over 2.5 million hits, causing a stir in the Arab world. For her defiance, she has been attacked, received death threats, and has sought asylum in Europe.  In perhaps her most daring piece to date, Elmahdy shared an image of her menstruating and naked on the Islamic State flag, with the letters IS painted on her breasts. 

Next to her, another woman in a hijab defecates on the flag, and she has the letters IS painted on her posterior. There are guns on either side of the women. This artistic statement was in response to Islamic State advances in Northern Iraq and Syria earlier in 2014.

African Renaissance Monument, Senegal 

Sex and sexuality are not the only artistic expressions that cause a stir in Africa. In Senegal, a sculpture made by a North Korean propaganda artist was unveiled in 2010. Standing at an immense 160-feet tall, named the Africa Renaissance monument, the bronze image depicts a bare-chested man holding a child in one arm and leading a woman with an exposed breast with his other hand. 

It wasn’t only the states of undress that displeased many Senegalese. Commissioned by then-president Abdoulaye Wade, the $27 million dollar piece of art was paid for by giving North Korea state-owned land in Senegal. Wade, already accused of corruption, further angered people by claiming 35% of revenue from tourism at the monument due to intellectual property rights.

The statue is still standing…and the crowds keep coming. Maybe Wade got this one right, after all.

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