Artist Brett Murray's The Spear has offended the ANC. Image: Courtesy of the Artist and the Goodman Gallery

President Jacob Zuma yesterday protested that public exposure of his genitals in a painting portrays him as “a philanderer, a womaniser” and that it’s an undignified depiction of his personality.

Zuma said in an affidavit that the portrait was degrading and was making a mockery of the office of the president.

Zuma and the ANC have applied to the Johannesburg High Court for an interdict to order the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg to stop displaying a portrait of him with exposed genitals.

He also wants to interdict the City Press newspaper from publishing the picture on its website even though it has appeared on several sites, print media and social websites.

The portrait was painted by Cape Town artist Brett Murray, who has remained silent about the looming court battle.

But the controversy has triggered curiosity, as hordes of people were queuing at the Joburg gallery yesterday.

In the affidavit Zuma says he only learnt of the painting on Thursday and when he saw it he was “shocked and felt personally offended and violated”.

“In particular, the portrait depicts me in a manner that suggests I am a philanderer, a womaniser 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 fellow citizens, family and children,” he says.

“It is clear in the eyes of those viewing the portrait that it seeks to depict me in a bad, undignified and degrading manner. Furthermore, 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.”

Zuma says the portrait is “making a mockery of the office of the (president)” and he “takes exception to the symbolism that the portrait uses in order to portray the ANC through its president as responsible for ‘abuses of power, corruption and political dumbness’.”

Zuma says “no monetary value” can be attached to the claim because his right to dignity was infringed.

The ANC can expect a fight, however, because the gallery has indicated it will oppose the application and says it cannot give up its right “to decide what art will hang on our walls”.

“We provide a neutral space in which dialogue and free expression is encouraged. In this space the ANC’s right to condemn the work is acknowledged, as much as the artist’s right to display it,” it said yesterday.

The painting went on display 10 days ago as part of Murray’s Hail to the Thief II exhibition. And the gallery says it will stay up until the exhibition closes on June 16.

Meanwhile, constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos was also quite scathing about the ANC’s ability to distinguish between a work of art and real life, saying this would “probably ruin their legal case”.

“As this is a work of art, there is no chance that any half-decent judge would grant the orders requested by the ANC,” De Vos predicted.

“All the ANC has done is to make themselves (and our president) the laughing stock of the country,” he wrote.

The 1.85m-high painting, which is a parody of a propaganda poster of former Soviet communist leader Vladimir Lenin, was bought by a German collector for R120 000 plus VAT. The gallery said yesterday it would be transported to the new owner at the end of the exhibition.

Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile urged artists to respect the rights of others when exercising their freedom of expression.

Social networks were abuzz with comment. Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted: “That painting can only be the work of a very sick mind full of hatred reflective of the damage our apartheid past caused to our society.”

Zakes Mda wrote: “As a person whose work was banned by the previous oppressors I’m against censorship even for those works that are not to my taste.”

Meanwhile, the ANC’s gender alliance structures – an informal body comprising the Women’s League – have condemned the portrait as well as Cosatu’s “sexist” treatment of DA leader Helen Zille.

“The collective remains resolute in its views that men should desist from using gender discrimination as a means of tackling political opponents, and all agreed that men should desist from talking about women’s bodies as objects,” the alliance said, but also condemned the DA for provoking Cosatu.

The organisation said it detests “in the strongest possible terms the vulgar portrayal of the country’s president”.

“The painting is not only an insult to the president and to the ANC, but to all the South Africans who have been subjected to their president portrayed in this sexual manner. The painting is extremely insensitive and an expression of pure prejudice. It violates the integrity of the office of the president and it violates his rights as an individual to humane and fair treatment.”

The organisation has demanded the removal of the painting from the gallery and from the internet where it is “causing much humiliation to all patriotic South Africans”.

Sunday Independent