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South African President Zuma, gallery settle case over painting

May 30, 2012 |  8:06 am

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- After weeks of confrontation over a controversial painting depicting President Jacob Zuma with genitals exposed, the South African leader and the gallery that had shown the work have settled their legal fight out of court, they announced Wednesday.

The ruling African National Congress and the artist, Brett Murray, were parties to the deal to defuse the deep anger nationwide over "The Spear," a work of art that made South Africa’s consensus look frighteningly fragile.

But the controversy left lingering questions about the nature of artistic freedom in a society traumatized by apartheid, where the constitution accords equal weight to artistic freedom and human dignity.

As Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers and ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu spoke at a joint news conference Wednesday, the differences between them became more and more apparent.

Essers stood by artistic freedom, saying the gallery would encourage artists to do controversial and courageous work. Mthembu said artists should think before acting and take care not to offend or insult.

Essers said the issue was not about race.  Mthembu said the grief over the painting was felt by black South Africans, stripped naked by apartheid.

“By all means, do it in Europe,” said Mthembu, of the depiction of genitals in a painting. “If you do it to me and my kids see this thing, my family and my people have been insulted by this thing.”

“Not all black people feel that way,” Essers interrupted him. “Nobody’s view is more important than anybody else’s.”

“Many, many South Africans feel the way I feel,” Mthembu insisted, “the majority of them.”

The two were seated in front of a white wall with large red letters "Promises, promises, promises," one of Murray's works in the exhibition “Hail to the Thief II,” which is a blunt commentary on the ANC’s distance from its socialist ideals during the liberation struggle.

Under the agreement, the gallery said the painting had been removed from public display -- citing the fact it had been defaced. The painting was vandalized last week by two men.

Essers said although the agreement didn’t oblige the gallery to remove an image of the work from the gallery’s website, she would take it down as a goodwill gesture “at some point.”

Many welcomed the settlement and the ANC’s call for a debate on to what extent sensitivities about human dignity in post-apartheid South Africa imposed limitations on freedom of expression.

“We are living in a society where issues of race and representation are very fragile,” said Anton Harber of the Freedom of Expression Institute. “I think the good thing about this is it’s thrown these very difficult issues into open and hopefully clarity will emerge from that. I think we want to have the discussion. We want to achieve a new consensus on what’s acceptable and what’s not, preferably one that’s agreed, not imposed by a court."

Mthembu said while the ANC didn’t plan further court action on the exhibition, the party would talk to Murray, the artist, about its dislike of other works in it, singling out a work in which the words of ANC military wing cadre Solomon Mahlangu, who was hanged by the apartheid regime, were altered.

An iconic 1981 poster depicts his final words as “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle.” Murray has reproduced the poster almost exactly but added a phrase to read “…and that they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and kickbacks.”

The painting so angered sections of South Africa’s population that some argue it should not be allowed to leave the country. But Essers said the German collector who had bought the work still wished to have it and the gallery would deliver the painting to him.


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Photo: Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers and South Africa's ruling African National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu hold a news conference Wednesday in Johannesburg. Credit: Stephane de Sakutin / AFP/Getty Images