We are taking on water, signals for help are ignored, our leaders have abandoned ship

IFAA featured The Raft of the Medusa by French artist Theodore Gericault as the cover picture for the latest issue of its flagship journal, New Agenda. A grim portrayal of human suffering, our aim was not to shock readers or cause dismay. This painting, which now hangs in the Louvre in Paris, was chosen as a symbol of our time and place. It powerfully captures the current national mood of despair.

As a country we are sinking fast. Our leaders have chosen their own interests over the common good and – without belabouring the symbolism – have cast citizens adrift in a sea of despair. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor but it speaks to us as a nation. We are taking on water and our signals for help are going unnoticed.

Gericault’s painting caused an outcry when it was first publicly exhibited in France in 1819. It was roundly denounced for showing compassion for the individual suffering of the poor and lowly – all of which was unusual for the time. Salon art traditionally featured the powerful and noble attending gracious occasions, and steered away from real- life drama.

For those unfamiliar with this piece of art, it depicts the aftermath of the 1816 shipwreck of French Navy frigate Medusa off the coast of Senegal, while on a journey to transport French officials to reclaim the territory as a colony. The captain with his senior officers and a handful of politicians, commandeered the few available lifeboats, leaving some 150 crew, slaves and destitute passengers adrift on a hastily improvised raft.

After a 13-day ordeal, 15 survivors were found alive, five of whom died within days of their rescue, making this painting a not-very-subtle political statement about the rich and powerful, their determined self-interest and their cruel disregard for the rest.

Why refer to a 19th century European painting to tell us what we already know about the corruption and incompetence of those in positions of power who cruelly abandon the poor and powerless?

In the wake of our own steadily unfolding shipwreck what particularly resonates for us in South Africa is the apparently widely known lack of experience of the captain who was reported to be a political appointment with connections in the French monarchy who gained his rank despite his clear incompetence.

As it did then, Gericault’s painting exposed scandalous political implications and continues to loudly and boldly speak truth to power …

… and the story goes that despite a promise to tow the raft behind them to safety, an officer in the governor’s lifeboat took an axe and cut through the rope to prevent it impeding the progress of the lifeboats, casting the raft adrift in the open ocean and abandoning its passengers without any means of navigating to shore.

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