South African gallery closes after controversial work is defaced


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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African art gallery that displayed a controversial painting showing the country’s president with his genitals exposed announced Tuesday it was closing its doors temporarily because of threats.

The decision came after vandals defaced the artwork earlier in the day.

Lara Koseff, spokeswoman for the Goodman Gallery, said there had been numerous threats made against the gallery after its display of ‘The Spear,’ by Cape Town artist Brett Murray. The painting has divided South Africa and ignited a debate on artistic freedom.


Koseff said the gallery closed its doors because visitors and staff were at risk of violence. The gallery moved the artwork to a safe location.

Two men smeared paint on the artwork, which depicted President Jacob Zuma posed like Soviet leader V.I. Lenin with his pants unzipped and genitals exposed. The men were arrested and charged with malicious damage.

A third man was arrested later Tuesday trying to spray-paint writing at the gallery entrance.

Gallery owner Liza Essers said in a statement Tuesday she was shocked at the public reaction to the artwork.

‘The painting has generated a debate that clearly engages with important legal and constitutional issues,’ she said. ‘This is over and above questions of political power, which formed part of its original dialogue.

‘The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much,’ she added. ‘I furthermore never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful physical action.’


Before Tuesday, Zuma and the ruling African National Congress had sued the gallery to remove the painting and the newspaper City Press to make it remove a picture of the work from its website. The gallery, artist and newspaper were to oppose the action before a full bench of the High Court on Thursday.

The work was part of the exhibition ‘Hail to the Thief II’ commenting on the alleged corruption of the ruling African National Congress and its socialist origins. Zuma filed an affidavit with the court saying that he was deeply hurt and offended by the painting. Murray filed an affidavit that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s dignity.

The painting ignited a storm in South Africa, with the ANC and its political allies calling the painting racist while artists and the Freedom of Expression Institute decried the ruling party’s efforts to suppress the work.

The controversy also exposed the country’s enduring racial divide, with many black people deeply uncomfortable about the confrontational portrait of the president, while many whites were disturbed by ANC’s efforts to curb artistic freedom. It follows a recent race controversy after a white model used offensive language tweeting about a black man in a supermarket, quickly followed by a young black actress tweeting that she wished all whites had been shot.

Tuesday’s attack on the painting was cheered by many South Africans on Twitter. But some saw the attack as sending an ominous message about South African freedom and tolerance.

‘There’ll be a temptation to dismiss this as funny. It is not. It is profound. South Africa’s tolerance was tested and we failed,’ wrote a columnist with Business Day, Gareth van Onselen, on Twitter.



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— Robyn Dixon

Video: South African e-News television footage on YouTube of vandals defacing controversial portrait of Jacob Zuma. Credit: YouTube