Because Reeva Gets to Be a Person

Since the brutal murder of Anene Booysen, another woman has become famous by her first name alone: Reeva. As the narrative of the events of Valentine’s Day shifts from one focusing on fears of violent crime to domestic violence, it is becoming clear that nobody in South Africa – no matter how rich, or famous, or beautiful – is immune from the gender-based violence that has become endemic.

I am not in the target market for the Tropika Island of Treasure, the reality show in which one of the celebrity guests is Reeva Steenkamp. Though I have an inexplicable weakness for pineapple flavoured dairy fruit juice blend, I am not one of the people who will have fitted into the marketing brief, which probably read along the lines of “LSM 5-7, ages 16-24, urban”.  I have a hunch, though, that many others not in Tropika’s core target market also watched the show last night, because it has now taken on a surreal significance unthinkable before the terrible events of Valentine’s Day.

Should they have broadcast the show as scheduled? Reeva has not even been buried yet and her killer, Oscar Pistorius, has not yet entered a plea. In that sense, a vapid reality show filled with crashingly unsubtle product placement – Reeva posing on a beach, like the other female contestants,  with a Tropika bottle propped awkwardly against her thigh – is a rather lurid obituary to a woman now famous around the world. Though the producers have said that broadcasting the show as planned is a fitting tribute to Reeva, I am sure that other more pragmatic considerations are in play: the money paid by the sponsor, the huge national (and global) interest.

You could argue, quite justifiably, that broadcasting the show is tasteless and cynical. The tribute that appeared in Real Goboza, the celebrity gossip show that immediately preceded it on Saturday evening, was rather glib and perfunctory under the circumstances. I expected more, and the fact that Phat Joe, the presenter, introduced the new show by saying, “If nothing else, watch it for the bodies” made it all even more clangingly awful. Presumably his segment was recorded before all of this happened, but his words could not have been more unfortunate.

But, all things considered, I am glad that they chose to broadcast it. Here’s why.

This case is as much about fame as it is about anything else. And in the fame stakes, Oscar Pistorius is at a huge advantage. That this story is as big as it is from Sky News to the New York Times is testament to Oscar’s celebrity status and his singular power as a symbol of the greatness of the human spirit. He’s a figure streaking down a track on his distinctive blades, a face gazing from a billboard, the subject of countless TV interviews and profiles. It’s worth remembering that Oscar has a spin doctor, a former editor of The Sun known as the “human sponge”, and a team of hot-shot lawyers. Reeva has her family and friends.

This will be Oscar’s story no matter what, because of its sheer scale. Already it threatens to become that of the ultimate failed hero. In its dizzying rollercoaster dive from the heights of Olympic glory to the horror of a brutal crime, Oscar’s tale dwarfs even Tiger and Lance.  It will be told years from now, the narrative of a star that burned too bright and burned out like a meteor in a Russian sky, brought down to earth by whatever is revealed during the course of the trial. Everything else will be lost in the glare of this spectacular self-immolation.

That’s why it’s so important that we see Reeva. Why it’s so important that she’s not just a victim in a bikini, but a laughing, breathing, talking human being. Someone we like. Someone we can relate to. Someone who talks to us, even if it’s through a TV screen and it’s from a past where the possibility of being shot by your celebrity boyfriend was blissfully unthinkable.

Nobody could see that clip from the show, the one where she says goodbye to her fellow contestants, and feel indifferent. So ironically, a TV show devoted above all to persuading South African teenagers to drink a dairy fruit juice blend available from the tuckshop down the road has turned Reeva from a victim photo into a real person.  And that is a good thing.

“I think the way that you go out, not just your journey in life, but the way that you go out and the way you make your exit is so important,” Reeva Steenkamp, speaking about being voted off the show.  

Because one day we will be free

Lipstick paintingThese paintings take their cue from my Swimming at Night series. The blue is from lipstick given to me by a friend, as well as eyeshadow from Dischem. It has a similar texture to lipstick and I love the contrast of the blue with the intense red. I’ve used birds and fishes before, and I’m drawn to the sense of floating in the sky and in water because of the sense of weightlessness and freedom these evoke. So these works (which are intended as a diptych, but make sense individually) are allegories of freedom from the pain and suffering of the world.

Size: 35cmx45cm mounted

Price: Sold to Tessa Reed

Because she went out at night

When I first started painting with lipstick more than ten years ago, the first subjects I tackled were apples. I liked the double meaning of the association with the myth of the Garden of Eden; by using lipstick the medium really was the message. These apples all explore the deep-seated cultural pinning of blame on women for sexual assault: we are the temptresses who lure men to their doom. Rape victims are frequently blamed – because she went out of night (she should have been home), because she wore a short skirt – and both of these paintings of apples explore this theme.

Two lipstick apples

Size: 30cmx30cm mounted

Medium: lipstick on board

Sold to @pekkil_monta – thank you Jack!

Because they did not take your spirit

Because they did not take your spirit

I’m amazed at how long Anene was able to stay alive, given the horrific nature of her injuries, and how she was able to cry out for her mother after she was taken to hospital. I like to think that her attackers may have tried to take everything from her, that they may have broken all of her fingers and both of her legs (this is where I like to stop thinking) but they couldn’t take her spirit. They couldn’t break her.

Because they broke

Size: 20cmx20cm unmounted; 30cmx30cm mounted

Medium: lipstick on board

Price: R500 each. All proceeds to Lawyers Against Abuse

Because you matter

I’ve painted lots of hearts with lipstick before. It started after I got dumped by a boyfriend, and I felt sad, and the obvious way to deal with that sadness was to paint broken hearts in which I scratched jagged lines. Later, I painted hearts to raise funds for Lawyers Against Abuse, because hearts code for stereotypes around romance and femininity, and I liked the double meaning. I created more than a hundred of them for Estee Lauder’s end of year gifts to the media.

This heart is different. This heart, and the ones that follow, will be for Anene. They can’t bring her back, but they can raise awareness and funds for other victims of gender-based violence. The message it contains is one for her and for all the girls and women who don’t believe that they matter.

Because you matter.

Because you matter

Because you matter

Size: 30cmx30cm mounted

Medium: Lipstick on board

Price: R500. All proceeds to Lawyers Against Abuse. To purchase, mail sarahjbritten[at] or find me on Twitter @Anatinus