Crocodile Tears, Brett Murray’s latest exhibition of bronze sculptures, two-dimensional cut-outs and works on paper, extends the crocodile tears metaphor to comment on the current political situation in South Africa where public and performative emotional displays are commonplace. Against a backdrop of corrupt practices, governmental inefficacy and ethically dubious political practice, Murray’s satiric commentary is both refreshing and sophisticated.
In Shakespeare’s classic dramatisation of the dangers of emotional manipulation in the play of power, Othello, the title character laments the tears of his wife when he accuses her of adulterous behaviour. “O devil, devil!” he cries. “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile./ Out of my sight!” Othello refers to the myth of crocodile tears, where the creature weeps falsely as a means to lure its prey to slaughter. Crocodile Tears, Brett Murray’s latest exhibition of bronze sculptures, two-dimensional cut-outs and works on paper, extends the crocodile tears metaphor to comment on the current political situation in South Africa where public and performative emotional displays are commonplace. Against a backdrop of corrupt practices, governmental inefficacy and ethically dubious political practice, Murray’s satiric commentary is both refreshing and sophisticated.Using imagery from the renaissance and baroque periods, Murray employs key themes and associations of those periods for confrontational critique. Thabo Mbeki adopted the idea of the “African Renaissance” as a progressive and idealised vision for the newly democratic South Africa. His “I am an African” speech (1996) heralded a patriotic and proactive approach to Africa’s problems. In Murray’s arch response, a painted aluminium diptych titled I am an African Too (2008), he conjoins an image of Robert Mugabe with Mbeki’s words. Elsewhere, Murray shows how the concept of the African Renaissance has become shorthand for capitalist gain. ¬¬¬Far from simply taking the piss, Murray’s witty one-liners present an uncompromisingly scathing attack on political hypocrisy. The two steel-cut figures in Shame (2008), rendered in a baroque style, evoke Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV. The tears that stream endlessly to the floor obscure their vision in a superfluous display of emotion. In Let Them Eat Pap (2008), a play on Antoinette’s infamous phrase “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (loosely translated, “let them eat cake”), the scenario of blind excess in the face of poverty is blatantly clear. The graphic flatness and sheen of his mild steel portraits, overlaid with “Fool’s Gold”, suggests a persona fixated on image – a fake patina of perfection.Power and Patronage (2008), a bronze sculpture that shows two bulbous, coiffed bronze poodles going at it with regal gusto encapsulates the satirical tone of Murray’s exhibition. Similarly, The Faithful Sycophant (2008) and Praise Singer (2008), both show dogs balancing on their hind legs in a debased and sycophantic display of servility and fawning. It is easy to read works like Power and Patronage as emblematic of political interactions of the current day, but in many ways Murray’s bronze sculptures can also be viewed as commentary on the power dynamics inherent in the making and marketing of art. Often the art scene is prey to pandering and performative gestures between artist, dealer and client, a work such as Power and Patronage recasting our understanding of just who is doing who.