Controversial painting of South African president reopens racial divide
A white man's painting of South Africa's black president, genitals exposed, slashed open an ugly racial divide in the nation this week.
Los Angeles Times
JOHANNESBURG — A white man's painting of a black president, genitals exposed, slashed open an ugly racial divide in South Africa this week, leading to death threats against the artist, calls for the boycott of a newspaper, vandalism of the artwork and the temporary closure of a gallery.
The issue grew more heated Thursday, when President Jacob Zuma's lawyer broke down and wept after tough questioning from a white high-court judge during a hearing on Zuma's efforts to have the painting permanently banned from public display.
Attorney Gcina Malindi cried when questioned by Judge Neels Claasen about why the painting should be seen as racist and offensive to black South Africans. The court immediately adjourned and later ordered the media not to broadcast images of the lawyer crying.
Malindi was an activist in the struggle against apartheid and was jailed for treason in the 1980s. He later told journalists he cried because the trial brought back bitter memories.
"I was just overcome by emotions, and there is a history to it as a former activist," he said, according to the newspaper City Press. "As an advocate, we are supposed to be trained not to be emotional when we appear in court."
Brett Murray's painting, "The Spear," was part of an exhibition called "Hail to the Thief II," a blunt critique charging that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was corrupt and had abandoned its socialist ideals. Zuma has called the artwork personally offensive, and ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, who was in court Thursday, has termed it racist.
In a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol's brightly colored Marilyn Monroe portraits or Soviet-era propaganda posters, "The Spear" depicts Zuma in a suit, looking off into the distance, and his genitals are exposed.
Many black South Africans were uneasy with the confrontational imagery of the painting, with some mounting arguments that African culture respected elders, hence the display was offensive and insensitive. Others said it recalled brutal apartheid searches, which often saw black men stripped naked.
But their opponents in a fierce public debate contended that Zuma — who once had sex with an HIV-positive family friend half his age without using a condom and then was acquitted after she accused him of rape — has opened himself to such parodies.
Zuma, 70, has been married six times; he currently has four wives, as his Zulu culture allows. He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.
"Zuma's (image) is of a man whose concentration is on sex and political self-preservation. He has done more to provide fodder for racist stereotypes than any black South African has done," South African columnist Justice Malala wrote in the British newspaper the Guardian on Wednesday, dismissing arguments about African cultural sensibilities.
As debate raged, the work was vandalized Tuesday at the Goodman Gallery, a leading Johannesburg gallery, by two men in swift succession — one white, one black — who claimed they didn't know one another. The gallery closed temporarily and moved the painting.
Zuma and the ANC, meanwhile, broadened their legal action from an effort against the gallery and City Press, which posted the image on its website, and tried to ensure the painting was not displayed anywhere in public. The ANC has called for a boycott of the newspaper.
Though the ANC has argued the painting is an affront to Zuma's dignity as president, Claasen said the law offered no protection for the dignity of either the presidency or the party, and the case could only weigh any offense to Zuma personally.
The court must balance this against the strong protection offered in the South African Constitution for freedom of artistic expression.
Claasen asked Malindi if the ANC would be in court opposing the painting if it had shown apartheid-era President F.W. de Klerk. "What evidence is there that this is a colonial attack on the black cultures of this country?" he asked.
Thursday's hearing was broadcast live on national television. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of Zuma supporters danced and sang.
As arguments began, a three-judge panel of South Gauteng High Court judges closely questioned Malindi on points of law, race, art and the limits of their ability to control publication on the Internet.
Malindi argued that the court should take into account not just the opinions of a "superclass" of art experts, but how the painting was likely to be seen by the country's black majority, denied education under apartheid. Malindi, who is black, said many blacks still lived in poverty after the end of apartheid in 1994. He then began crying.
Claasen said three black artists had submitted that the painting wasn't racist. "This is black against black," he told the court.
The hearing was adjourned until next week.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.