The show was loaded with flashy gold-plate sculptures and signage with slogans like we demand chivas, bmws, and bribes. But the piece that ignited a national uproar was The Spear: a portrait of the country’s black president, Jacob Zuma, styled like a famous poster of Lenin—but with Zuma’s penis hanging out of his fly. (The image referenced the fact that Zuma, who has four wives per his Zulu tradition, was tried for rape in 2006; the charges were dismissed.) Once the ANC got wind of the portrait, it filed a lawsuit demanding its removal. The gallery, arguing free expression, refused. Drama ensued, with the ANC rallying protesters outside the gallery. Then one day, in what appeared to many as an orchestrated incident, two men—one white and one black—defaced the portrait before being dragged away by police.
Finally, gallery owner Liza Essers, who is white, took the painting down. “I was afraid the place was going to be burned down if I didn’t,” she said on a recent afternoon in her office, surrounded by sculptures by Kentridge, a Goodman artist. Essers and ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu held a press conference in the gallery to publicly turn the page. “I had no idea that the painting was going to be so controversial,” she said, adding that she would still mount the work if she had to do it over. She also said she felt that the ANC, trying to shore up support amid increased public disgust, had used the Spear affair “as a political football.”
Such are the confusing fault lines running beneath the city’s creative scene that it can often feel like a joyous post-racial melting pot. “We’re an 18-year-old democracy, and we’re behaving, naturally, like a teenager a lot of the time,” said Dion Chang, a former fashion-magazine editor who now runs a trend-forecasting agency. The black middle class in the city has rapidly expanded, while a small black elite, often connected to the ANC and referred to as “black diamonds,” has also emerged, eager to show off its wealth. But huge numbers of people in the country, which is 80 percent black, still live in poverty.
This class schizophrenia has bred some bizarre phenomena, such as a local pastime in which young people parade their brand-name clothes and sneakers before one another, then boastfully burn the items—sometimes they even burn cash. But a less extreme form of showmanship is the rise of street-fashion crews that pay homage to the long-standing local tradition of men competing for cash prizes over who wears the swankiest suit.
Thus far, the best-known of Johannesburg’s many fashion crews is the Smarteez, so named because its members make dressing “smart” look “easy,” and also because they wear bright colors that evoke Smarties candies (the English equivalent of M&M’s)—colorful on the outside, black inside. On a recent afternoon in Soweto, with the acrid smell of petrol in the air, about 10 of the Smarteez (three of them women) gathered in the one-room studio they rent amid a sea of modest cinder-block homes. This space serves as both their clubhouse and HQ for a clothing line they’ve started featuring items like men’s Nehru-collar paisley shirts and slim-fitting suits.