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Zuma painting ‘staying up’ despite threats

May 19 2012

By Sameer Naik, Kashiefa Ajam

The owner of the Goodman Gallery has received death threats because of The Spear.
But Liza Essers is adamant: Brett Murray’s explicit painting of President Jacob Zuma with his penis exposed is staying up.

The painting has caused a storm of controversy here and internationally, after the ANC demanded that the gallery take it down.

Essers, who would not elaborate on the threat, has hired additional security. What greets visitors to the gallery now is a bulletproof-clad guard with a gun on his side.

The gallery is exhibiting the painting as part of award-winning Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s exhibition of politically inspired works, Hail To The Thief II.

The portrait has sparked a national debate, particularly on freedom of expression and right to dignity.
Speaking to the Independent Newspapers yesterday, Essers said the gallery had stuck by its artists during and after apartheid, and still supported them.

“I received a letter from the ANC on Thursday demanding that I take down the painting before the end of the business day,” said Essers. “But it is still up – until the end of the exhibition on June 16.”

On Friday, the gallery was packed with curious visitors. While some of them approved of the portrait, others said they were horrified. Carol Makgabo, who visited the gallery after hearing about the portrait on the radio, said she was appalled. “I personally feel that the painting is very disrespectful to Jacob Zuma. He is our president and we should always show him utmost respect,” said Makgabo.

Michael Eastwood had a different view: “I actually think that the artist is paying a compliment to the president. The way I see it… Zuma looks like a man who is in full control.”

A 78-year-old Independent reader, who did not want to be named, was bored with hearing about the president’s penis. “All men have it; what is the big deal? When Michelangelo painted David, the Jews and Christians didn’t make a noise. Why is our president’s penis such big news,” she said.

On Friday, Cosatu and the Presidency condemned Murray and the gallery, saying the president’s rights had been violated. Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said The Spear “could only be a work of a very sick mind full of hatred, reflective of the damage our apartheid past caused to our society”.

The Presidency expressed its shock and disgust at the “grotesque painting”, saying Murray had depicted the president in an offensive manner. “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.”

The ANC said it had instructed its lawyers to approach the courts to force the gallery to remove the portrait, City Press newspaper to remove the photo from its website, and for the destruction of all printed promotional material.

But asking City Press to remove a picture of a painting would be censorship, editor Ferial Haffajee said.
She criticised Zuma, saying he was no paragon of virtue, who had done more to impugn his own dignity than any artist ever could.

“We are Mzansi after all, not Afghanistan, where they bulleted (sic) the Buddhas of Bamiyan because the art did not conform to what the rulers believed it should be,” she said.

The painting was bought by a German private collector for R136 000.

Although Murray is not commenting on the controversy, one artist who knows all too well how an explicit painting can make you famous is Yiull Damaso, whose portrait of the Last Supper pre-empted the death of Nelson Mandela.

In the painting Mandela is the cadaver, Nkosi Johnson the instructor, and the students Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trevor Manuel and Helen Zille.

The ANC also bemoaned – although more quietly – the use of the party’s logo in Murray’s exhibition. Murray depicts a poster of the ANC’s emblem with a “for sale” sign printed on top of it and the word “sold” stamped across it. - Pretoria News Weekend