Zuma’s Private Parts Cause Art World Stir

An explicit painting of South Africa's president could jeopardize the country's hard-won freedoms.

Brett Murray's The Spear (Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Brett Murray's The Spear (Gallo Images/Getty Images)

(The Root) — South Africa’s president and ruling party have somehow managed to turn a national penis joke into a constitutional challenge that could affect the hard-won freedoms of the country’s residents decades after the end of apartheid.

A provocative exhibit that opened two weeks ago and features works from Brett Murray, a white artist from Cape Town, is anything but subtle in its criticism of the ruling party. Murray accuses the African National Congress of corruption, excess, greed and a general failure to deliver (the latter is captured in a large red metal sculpture that simply reads, “PROMISES PROMISES PROMISES”).

The government is used to such criticisms — and a revolving door of related scandals, including the president’s own trials for corruption and rape. But when the ANC caught wind of one painting in particular titled “The Spear” — a 6-foot-tall riot of yellows, blacks and reds that depicts a stylized Jacob Zuma, 70, posing as Lenin with his genitals exposed — it prompted them to deliver court papers to the gallery, ordering the removal of the offending piece.

In a press release issued May 17, ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu wrote that the painting, which is part of an exhibit at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery titled “Hail to the Thief II,” is an “abuse of freedom of expression.” Zuma himself weighed in a day later, saying in a statement that the $15,000 painting, which has already sold, “perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the President.”

However, the gallery’s initial response was to keep the painting up. “We felt to take it down would be censorship,” said gallery officer Lara Koseff. The last time the gallery drew this much attention, she said, was with an exhibition called “Art Against Apartheid” in 1985. “I think for this country, it’s important to have these conversations and acknowledge our constitution and what our constitution is capable of,” she added.

The painting has divided the country, with some black South Africans claiming that the imagery is an affront to African culture, which places a premium on respecting its elders. Others have argued that it recalls the strip searches endured by many under apartheid. Then there are the freedom of expression advocates, like Koseff, who claim the ANC’s demands have threatened the country’s constitutional rights. As the controversy raged, protestors defaced the painting, causing the gallery to temporarily close.