Gallery drops ‘Zuma spear’ image from website

Thousands march through the streets of Johannesburg as outrage and tension over controversial painting continue.

Zuma protest spear
The painting has sparked a fiery national debate on artistic freedom in South Africa [Reuters]

The gallery which exhibited a controversial painting of South African President Jacob Zuma has agreed to take down an image of the artwork from its website amid continuing protests.

The painting itself, which depicts the president’s genitals and is called “The Spear”, had already been removed from display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg after it was defaced last week.

But the passionate feelings about the painting have shown few signs of subsiding as a fierce national debate on race, freedom of expression and artistic rights continue to rage on in the country. 

On Tuesday, an estimated 2,000 protesters marched through the streets of Johannesburg to demonstrate against the painting, a day after the City Press newspaper issued an apology for publishing the image on its website and agreed to pull it from the site.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent Tania Page, reporting from Johannesburg, said that police were “out in force to keep the protesters away from the gallery and everything passed calmly which is a relief to many here after increasingly aggressive rhetoric from the African National Congress (ANC)”.

“It had called for a boycott of the City Press newspaper, which posted the painting on its website, and where staff have received death threats,” our correspondent said.

‘Like a tinderbox’

“The threats and invective against the writer of the review and a couple of us in the middle of the debate have been painful and have wrought a personal cost

– Ferial Haffajee, Editor of City Press

Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, wrote in her editorial on Monday that the decision to remove the image was taken in the spirit of peacemaking but “the image is coming down from fear too. I’d be silly not to admit that. The atmosphere is like a tinderbox: City Press copies went up in flames on Saturday; I don’t want any more newspapers burnt in anger”.

“The threats and invective against the writer of the review and a couple of us in the middle of the debate have been painful and have wrought a personal cost,” Haffajee wrote.

Our correspondent said that the debate “pitted two constitutional values against each other: the president’s right to dignity and privacy versus the artist and the gallery’s right to freedom of expression”.

“It seems the ANC is winning, the City Press took the picture off its website and the gallery’s been closed for nearly a week,” she said.

Freedom of expression

The gallery and artist Brett Murray have argued they are defending the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

“I am not a racist,” Murray said in an affidavit filed in the court case, which is still under way. “I do not produce art with an intention to hurt, humiliate or insult.”

Liza Essers, owner of the Goodman Gallery, said she regretted “the divisiveness that the exhibition has caused.

“It was never my intention to cause hurt to any person,” Essers said in a statement last week.

Black artists filed affidavits supporting Murray. And a white man and a black man entered the gallery to deface the painting, saying they were acting independently of each other and wanted to defend Zuma.

The two were arrested and face trespassing charges.

Murray said in his court affidavit that the intention of his Zuma painting, part of a show that criticizdd the ANC, was to express a sense of betrayal that some post-apartheid leaders were greedy or corrupt.

He also said that details of Zuma’s sex life had become part of the public debate in South Africa.

Zuma, 70, has been married six times and currently has four wives.

He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.

‘Inferior citizens’

The painting that started the flutter

Tuesday’s protest wound about a kilometre from a usually quiet park in an upscale Johannesburg neighbourhood to a corner just south of the gallery.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu addressed the crowd outside the gallery, saying, “We refuse to be painted as inferior citizens of this country.”

South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, a Zuma ally, compared the case to a hate speech suit a group that lobbies for white South Africans brought against an ANC leader who had insisted on continuing to sing a song from the apartheid era that calls for killing whites. The judge in that case banned the song.

Nzimande said some had asked why Zuma supporters went to court, as the white group did, instead of trying to speak to the artist and the gallery to find a solution.

“You can’t have a dialogue with a person who is actually insulting you,” Nzimande said.

Kgomo, a protester at the demonstration, said that despite the division vividly on display Tuesday, a resolution was possible.

“If they apologise to our president, then it will be enough for us,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies