South Africa: Controversy over painting depicting president’s genitals

24 May 2012

South African President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress sought a court order to have a painting depicting the president’s genitals removed from an art gallery but two men took matters into their own hands by defacing the portrait with gobs of paint.

The different reactions to a painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg reflects the diversity of South Africa, said the gallery’s spokesman Lara Koseff. Visits to the gallery’s exhibition ‘Hail to the Thief II’ had increased since the ANC took issue with the painting entitled ‘The Spear’ by Cape Town artist Brett Murray.

Three people were being held in detention on 22 May 2012 for alleged offences: Two of them allegedly defaced the picture with red and black paint, obscuring the face and waist of the figure, while a third person was arrested for apparently trying to spray the word ‘Respect’ on a wall of the Goodman Gallery.

Police spokesman Colonel Vishnu Naidoo confirmed the arrests in a statement:
“The two men, 58 and 25 years of age, allegedly made crosses with red paint and smeared black paint respectively on the portrait.”

The arrests came within an hour of the High Court in Johannesburg setting down an application by the ANC to have the painting removed from the gallery. The application had just been postponed when word spread that the painting ‘The Spear’ had been defaced.

Discussions have been held on whether the painting could be taken away by police to be used as evidence in court, or whether it should stay in the gallery.

The Film and Publication Board has taken submissions from parties, including the gallery, as it reacts to complaints and decides whether the painting should be classified.

Spokesman for the board, Prince Mlimandlela Ndamase, said it would go ahead in spite of the new turn of events, because images of the original picture were still widely available on the internet.

Reactions to the incident
The Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg published a statement via IFEX, the global network for free expression, saying that “We do not want to go back to a situation where art is censored because it offends the ruling party, or some take it upon themselves to dictate to others what is tasteful and acceptable. We want to celebrate our artists, and not denigrate and control them in the way of apartheid, though they may provoke, push the boundaries and even cause offence.”

The artist Brett Murray was an active protester against apartheid in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr Murray worked with Mike van Graan (executive director of the Africa Arts Institute) in the cultural sector of the anti-apartheid struggle including the “Towards a People’s Culture Festival”, which the apartheid government banned as it deemed it a threat to national security.

Christopher Evans commented on this in a letter to Financial Times: “The African National Congress’s inability to accept criticism and propensity to overreact has drawn world attention to Mr Murray’s poignant message, enabled journalists to emphasise the alarming rise of corruption, cronyism, materialism and patronage in the country, and reminded readers that Mr Zuma has had six wives and was acquitted of rape and corruption charges.”


Discussions over amendment
Daily Maverick wrote on 24 May 2012: “Arguments were heard in the Constitutional Court in March to have the amendments to the Film and Publications Act declared invalid. Media lawyer Dario Milo told Daily Maverick at the time:
“The bottom line is that the Act requires all publishers of material that contain sexual conduct of a particular nature (which is extremely widely defined) to submit the publication before it is published to the board for classification. The only exemption at present relates to newspapers, which are regulated by the Press Ombudsman.”

The requirement of the amendment is that expressions of a sexual nature must be submitted for classification. Refusal to do so would lead to a criminal sanction for non-compliance.
The government department fighting for this amendment to go through is home affairs, which manages the Film and Publications Board, and has done so since South Africa’s apartheid-styled censorship system was perfected by none other than Verwoerd. It would make greater sense for film and publications law to fall under the guardianship of the department of justice and constitutional development, but after numerous protestations to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, nothing has changed.”


Financial Times – 24 May 2012:
Zuma painter was an active protester against apartheid

Financial Times – 23 May 2012:
Zuma row escalates after art attack

IFEX / Freedom of Expression Institute – 23 May 2012:
FXI supports gallery’s refusal to remove Zuma picture – 22 May 2012:
‘The Spear,’ controversial Jacob Zuma painting, defaced in Jo’burg gallery (VIDEO)

The Citizen – 18 May 2012:
Zuma art ‘censors’ speak out
By Yadhana Jadoo


UPDATE – 30 May 2012

The Guardian – 30 May 2012:
Gallery removes painting and president drops legal case

IOL News – 27 May 2012:
Implementing ban a headche for Zuma’s lawyers

Irish Times – 25 May 2012:
ANC lawyer breaks down in case to ban Zuma portrait

World Association of Newspapers – 25 May 2012:
South Africa’s ANC party calls for City Press to censor presidential “spear”

The Guardian – 24 May 2012:
Jacob Zuma goes to court to ban penis painting

Daily Maverick – 24 May 2012:
Apartheid and censorship: The more things change…
Amid the logic-destroying hysteria surrounding Brett Murray’s (now defaced) The Spear, the Film and Publications Board will sit to decide if personal dignity trumps art and freedom of expression. Eighteen years into South Africa’s democracy and our censorship system is being haunted by that famous dead man, the grand architect of apartheid.

NBC News video report:
Art or insult?




5 June 2012

South Africans clash on Twitter over #Zumaspear

SOURCE: Committee to Protect Journalists

(CPJ/IFEX) – June 4, 2012 – The following is a CPJ Blog post:

By Mohamed Keita/CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator

South African journalist and arts critic Charl Blignaut made what turned out to be an excellent prediction. “Of all the work on show, it’s this depiction of the president that will set the most tongues wagging and most likely generate some howls of disapproval,” he wrote on May 13 in a review of an art exhibition in Johannesburg.

In his description of “The Spear,” which was part of a series of satirical works by artist Brett Murray poking fun at the leadership of the ruling African National Congress, Blignaut wrote, “I encounter a portrait of [President] Jacob Zuma in the pose of Lenin. The trousers are open and the presidential penis hangs exposed.”

Indeed, a firestorm of controversy ensued: racial tensions, the burnings of copies of Blignaut’s City Press newspaper, a protest march, a regulatory hearing, and intense debate between proponents of free speech and press freedom and those of the rights to privacy and honor.

Over a period of several days, South Africans did howl their disapproval–on Twitter.

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