Zuma's Private Parts Cause Art World Stir
An explicit painting of South Africa's president could jeopardize the country's hard-won freedoms.
Meanwhile, William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, a watchdog organization in Johannesburg that promotes ethical journalism practices, said the government's strong reaction is surprising and probably indicative of the party's insecurity as a major party conference looms later this year. "It's bizarre that the presidency is shocked and disgusted,'' Bird told The Root. "There are so many other issues about which they should be expressing that emotion, not for a picture of the president."
The debate has been featured on the nation's editorial pages, too. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, whose paper first ran the image of the painting, wrote that though she wouldn't display the painting in her own home, she questioned the practice of destroying art. She explained: "Our Constitution explicitly protects artistic expression as a subset of free expression, to which its detractors will respond as they have all week: they draw the line at art that impugns presidential dignity." Then she added that Zuma "has done more to impugn his own dignity than any artist ever could."
Haffajee is referring, as many South Africans know, to the notion that Zuma's privates are not exactly private property. The man has been acquitted of rape. He has admitted to siring a love child in his late 60s. He recently married his fourth wife -- and yes, he kept the three others. And he is possibly the most fecund modern head of state, with at least 20 known offspring.
This isn't the first time Zuma has legally objected to his portrayal. He is also suing South Africa's top political cartoonist for defamation. Jonathan Shapiro, who publishes under the name Zapiro, famously portrayed Zuma preparing to rape Lady Justice -- a criticism of Zuma's abuses of the justice system. He also drew Zuma with a showerhead suspended over him -- a reference to his testimony during his rape trial that he protected himself from HIV by showering shortly after having unprotected sex with a woman he knew was HIV-positive.
This recent battle over art has prompted opinion writer Alex Eliseev to ask: "Are we witnessing an assassination of Zuma's character or are we seeing the art world holding up a mirror to a man who has never been far from controversy? Would artists have painted Barack Obama with his penis hanging out? Obama has been depicted as a monster by those who disagree with his policies, but it has never been about his private parts. The man commands too much respect for that."
On Thursday, the Murray painting case was brought before the High Court in Johannesburg, where huge pro-ANC crowds gathered outside. Inside, Gcina Malindi, Zuma's lawyer, argued for the painting's removal but in an awkward turn of events, broke down in tears while recalling black South Africans' past struggles for freedom and dignity. When Malindi regained composure, he requested a postponement and court was adjourned. The case will be resumed at later date. And the nation is forced to wait longer for a resolution to the controversy.
A. Hawes has lived and worked in Africa for more than five years and covers a variety of topics and events.