(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.
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.