Cape Town-based satirical artist, Brett Murray (50), has raised the ire of the South African political establishment with his controversial painting, The Spear (above). The 185m portrait, which mimics the Vladimir Stalin-era propaganda posters, depicts the president of the country, Jacob Zuma (70), a practising polygamist with four wives, standing feet astride with his genitals exposed. The artwork which sold for R130 000 ($15 620.87) forms part of Murray’s exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Hail to the Thief II: a scathing critique of the African National Congress (ANC) and the way it has gone about the business of governing post-apartheid South Africa.
In an urgent high court application to have the painting removed from the gallery as well as from the website of a weekly newspaper which first published the story, City Press, Jacob Zuma contends that he “felt personally offended and violated.” He added: “the portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests I am a philanderer, a womaniser and one with no respect. It is an undignified depiction of my personality and seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of my fellow citizens, family and children.” However, popular (if not controversial) South African cartoonist Zapiro urges Zuma to “earn” the respect he desires in his depiction of the controversy which was published today in the Mail & Guardian.
On the ground, public opinion is viscerally divided. Some have accused Murray of racism and gross cultural insensitivity, while others have defended his freedom of expression. Speaking on behalf of the family, the president’s daughter, Gugu Zuma, said Murray’s painting is “vulgar and lacks humanity. It seeks to take away our father’s dignity, and destroy his true character and stature as a man.”
In a statement released on Friday the director of the Goodman Gallery, Liza Essers, expressed her disappointment at the court action set in motion by the president and the ANC; “It is a sad day for South Africa when creative production is being threatened with censorship from our ruling party,” she said. “While the views expressed by our artists are not necessarily those of the Gallery, we support our artists’ freedom of speech and expression and encourage them to show work that challenges the status quo, ignites dialogue and shifts consciousness.”
The South Gauteng High Court is set to hear the matter tomorrow.
“The Spear” painting has been defaced by two men, presumably acting separately, and it was all caught on camera:
As the saga continues it seems the public is completely divided on the issue: is a legitimate critique of Zuma? or does it simply reproduce colonialist tropes about African sexuality? or neither matter and freedom of speech trumps all?
Zuma’s lawyer Gcina Malindi, broke down in tears during a court hearing. The hearings have been post-poned due to the emotional toll the case took on the leading ANC lawyer when he spoke about South Africa’s struggle for democracy. Read some of the questions he was asked here.
City Press, the South African newspaper which first published a photo of the painting has removed it from their pages citing “peacemaking” and “fear” as the reasons. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee wrote a poignant account of the decision process to remove the painting (which at this point has gone viral). Read it here.
The ANC, Jacob Zuma, and The Goodman Gallery have settled their legal dispute out of court amid continuing protests. The Gallery agreed to remove the painting from “public view,” which will eventually include their website. The ANC has called for a debate on to what extent sensitivities about human dignity in post-apartheid South Africa imposed limitations on freedom of expression. As far as we can tell, this debate has already taken place for weeks in the public and private spaces of South Africa and the world.