A painting by a white Cape Town artist, Brett Murray, depicting South African President Jacob Zuma as Soviet leader Lenin -- but with his genitals exposed -- has caused a storm of controversy. Zuma and the ruling African National Congress have sued the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg to force it to take down the work.
The painting, "The Spear," sold for more than $17,000 before the exhibition "Hail to the Thief II" opened May 10.
“It's rude, it's crude, it's disrespectful, it's racist,” ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said Monday of the painting. Had a white man been depicted, the reaction would have been quite different, Mantashe contended at a news conference.
"We have not outgrown racism in our 18 years."
Zuma, who in 2009 sued a cartoonist for depicting him raping the blindfolded figure of justice, argues the work violates his constitutional right to privacy and dignity. (The 2009 case has not been decided.)
Zuma has lodged an urgent application to the High Court to have "The Spear" taken down, saying he felt shocked, offended and personally violated when shown a copy of the painting.
The court will have to weigh two sections of the constitution: one guaranteeing freedom of speech and another protecting the individual right to dignity and privacy.
Zuma is also taking legal action to force City Press, a South African newspaper, to remove a copy of the painting from its website.
"In particular, the portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests that I am a philanderer, a womanizer and one with no respect. It is an undignified depiction of my personality and seeks to create doubt about my personality in the eyes of my fellow citizens, family and children," Zuma argues in an affidavit to the court. "In terms of the theme of the exhibition, my portrait is meant to convey a message that I am an abuser of power, corrupt and suffer political ineptness."
The painting also has been condemned by trade unions, the Black Management Forum, the South African Students' Congress and others.
Murray, who is based in Cape Town, declined a Times request for an interview. A Goodman Gallery spokeswoman, Lara Koseff, said Monday that Murray preferred to "let the art speak for itself." She said Murray wanted debate about the painting to be focused on the work, not on him.
The gallery is contesting the action, arguing that it has a right to decide on what artwork it displays.
Koseff said representatives of the Film and Publications Board, which makes decisions on censorship of material deemed indecent, visited the gallery Monday to view the painting.
In the wake of the controversy, the gallery has posted security guards at its doors.
Murray's exhibition is a satire on South Africa's "predator elite," offering a blunt commentary of ruling party corruption and the party's socialist origins.
One work, based on a poster from the liberation struggle, depicts blacks demanding not political and economic freedoms but "Chivas, BMW's (sic) and bribes." A Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky label appears with the slogan "Forward comrades!" A Soviet poster of Stalin is labeled "tribal elder."
"This body of satirical work continues his acerbic attacks on abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness seen in his 2010 Cape Town show Hail to the Thief," says the gallery's description of the exhibition. "In this sequel show, Murray’s bronzes, etchings, paintings and silk-screens form part of a vitriolic and succinct censure of bad governance and are his attempts to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite."
In his youth, Murray was active in the anti-apartheid struggle.
A colleague, Mike van Graan, executive director of the African Arts Institute, who worked with Murray on a 1986 cultural festival banned by the apartheid government as a threat to national security, wrote in the Cape Times on Monday that Murray was not the first anti-apartheid activist to become disillusioned with the ruling elite.
"Ironically, it is further testimony to just how far we have strayed from the ideal of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and pro-poor society that Murray has attracted such vitriol and threats because he happens to have a white skin," wrote Van Graan. "It is not the role of artists to be praise singers for any political, economic or social entity, but rather to speak truth to power."
The painting is scheduled to remain on display until June 16.
Photo: A visitor to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg photographs a painting titled "The Spear" depicting President Jacob Zuma, who is demanding the removal of the work from the exhibition. Credit: Denis Farrell / Associated Press.