Contemporary art Controversies South Africa

Controversy over painting of South African president forces gallery to close its doors

The Johannesburg High Court will decide if the artist’s right to freedom of expression outweighs Jacob Zuma’s right to privacy

Brett Murray's painting "The Spear", 2011, depicting South Africa's president Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, was vandalised by protesters this week

A leading South African gallery has temporarily closed amid mounting controversy over a satirical painting of the country’s president. Jacob Zuma, the South African president and leader of the African National Congress (ANC) political party filed a legal suit against the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, this month for displaying a painting by Brett Murray, The Spear, 2011. The painting depicts Zuma in a mock-heroic pose with exposed genitalia. Zuma and the ANC contend that the work violates his constitutional right to dignity. The ANC also says that work refers to stereotypes around African male sexuality. In his application to have the painting removed, Zuma also demanded that the gallery’s promotional material be destroyed.

The Goodman Gallery released a statement in which it says that after “numerous threats of intimidation” it will be temporarily closed. “We feel that the Goodman Gallery, its staff as well the public visitors are at risk.”

The Goodman Gallery refused to remove the work. Liza Essers, the gallery’s director, said that is determined to fight for freedom of expression and artistic creativity. The work is part of a show “Hail to the Thief II” and is reported to have been sold before the opening night for R136,000 ($16,200).

An initial hearing to decide if the artist’s right to freedom of expression outweighs Zuma’s right to privacy, was held at High Court in Johannesburg on 22 May, however no ruling was made and a further hearing was scheduled for 24 May.

The Johannesburg-based City Press newspaper, which had also received a court order, also refused to remove an image of the painting that it had posted on its website.

Two men were arrested at the gallery on 22 May for defacing the painting with black and red paint. They have been charged with malicious damages to property and the painting has been moved to a safe location. The attack on the work and subsequent claims that the younger suspect was assaulted by the gallery’s security guards, has heightened the controversy surrounding Murray’s painting. “The extent of the rage has astonished and upset me very much,” Essers said in a statement released after the incident. “I never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful, physical action.”

A spokesman for the Nazareth Baptist Church told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that “this [painting] is an attack on the culture of the majority, the black people of Africa”.

Karel Nel, a professor at the University at the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, was one of the experts who supplied statements for the gallery’s legal defence. “The works in this exhibition extend the debate on power, sex and patriarchy in our society,” says Nel. “As an artist, Murray could be understood in terms of the role of the court jester, who would traditionally amuse the king, nobleman and courtiers with stories pertinent to their lives within the circumscribed power of the court.”

This is not the first time that Zuma has taken offence at a work of art. The South African cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro) has also been sued by the president over a drawing of him about to rape “Lady Justice”. In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend.

The gallery has displayed works by politically-engaged artists throughout the Apartheid era: “We show controversial views in a neutral space. I respect Zuma’s opinion of the art work as much as any other, but the issue is the protection of freedom of expression,” Essers says. The Art Newspaper also submitted a statement for the gallery’s defence, which argued that it is one of the leading galleries in the African continent and “should be free to continue to act in support of its artists’ practice”.

UPDATE: After reaching a settlement, the African National Congress party has dropped its action to ban the painting of Jacob Zuma and the gallery has taken down the picture.

A South African camera crew caught two protesters smearing Brett Murray's "The Spear" with paint this week
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7 Jun 12
17:37 CET


Hypocracy at its best, go Democracy and freedom of speech and expresion. ANC should spend more money at least trying to save the Rhino or how about running a country than wasting money on pop art and Malema madness!!!

4 Jun 12
15:49 CET


Are you telling me that a third-world liberation movement has a cult of the great leader, and is intolerant of civil rights and democratic dissent? That's unbelievable!!!!!! [IRONY]

1 Jun 12
14:53 CET


who are we fooling, racism will always be part of us whether, we try to move away from the stigma or not, people are saying that art iits expression and creativity but are we really that stupid to devalue our morals and values as africans? the fact that this cultural invasion had made us to forget our morals and african cultures adopt to this european cutures which have made us loose sense of who we really are. creativity or not we really need to do introspection and what are we saying to the world about our leaders. Ha re phuthaneng re le ma-Afrika. Shame on us for condoning such humiliating behaviours.

29 May 12
17:33 CET


Thank GOD above that i live and create in a some what free country, i couldn't see my president closing an art gallery over a satyrical painting of him. And as far as racism is concerned, ONLY RACIST'S ARE CONCERNED WITH RACE.

25 May 12
17:5 CET


It is a great shame that the Goodman Gallery, who was so instrumental in the development of black artist during the apartheid years, is being persecuted for exhibiting works that comments on society and politics of the day. Dumile Feni's drawings (Bill Ainslie tried to convince Linda Goodman not to show a drawing of Dumile depicting a servant serving male genitalia) in the late 1960's contributed to his exile. Freedom of expression help keeps society in check, we should embrace it not stamp it out.

25 May 12
17:4 CET


Art is there to push our views, make us think, and b confronting. It's an opinion or a poke at one. This artwork is brilliant, and that can be accounted for by the amount of media it has created and the opposing views of it. It's not about his genitals it's about exposure, about confrontation, about all of this and more. It's ART. It has nothing to do with him being black nor white, its not a racist issue and if you think's it is, u r being racist to other colours! There are plenty of artworks exposing a lot of genitals through all the ages, it's the manner and composition of this piece of art that really tells the story, not just his dick.

24 May 12
18:37 CET


Are you joking... Its ART, its expression. Without expression art would not be art!

24 May 12
21:25 CET


If you're in position to effect others opinions and even their believes, and you continue to make stupid public comments (like many of our politicians do)... then you most definitely open yourself up to it, and definitely deserve, to have your stupidity "exposed"... the fact that there are so many "intelligent" people that don't understand the word satire, and still have the audacity to view this as racism is beyond me...

24 May 12
16:43 CET


It is an insult why they did not done that while umlungu in power (white presidents). It shows apartheid . we in the black community we feel undermined by the white people no matter in a position of president of the country . what saying the world? there is no respect and it shows that the man draw this , he has own president you can't do that to your president. let us respect others right.

24 May 12
15:22 CET


We are all in favour of freedom of expression and artistic creativity but must this eternal conflict between holders of power and creative artist’s centre around the genitalia of a politician? Freedom of expression and artistic creativity must surely find their limits in the respect of the privacy and personality of the individual, however low or high he may be in the public eye. Besides, African sensibility and respect of the individual and his post would discourage such an uncontrolled exercise of freedom. We should by all means criticize political leaders for their failures but can we use subjects other than their genitalia?

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