A man visiting the Goodman gallery hides president Jacob Zuma's private part seen in a controversial painting by Brett Murray on Jan Smuts ave. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Sameer Naik and 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.

Although Essers would not elaborate on the threat, she has been forced to hire additional security. Now what greets visitors to the Goodman Gallery is an armed guard wearing a bulletproof vest.

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

The painting, which stands 1.85m high and is an acrylic on canvas, has sparked a national debate, particularly on the issue of freedom of expression and the right to dignity.

Speaking to the Saturday Star 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.”

Yesterday the Goodman Gallery was packed with curious visitors.

While some approved of the portrait, others said they were horrified by it.

Carol Makgabo, who visited the gallery yesterday after hearing about the portrait on the radio, said she was appalled.

“I personally feel the painting is very disrespectful to Jacob Zuma. He is our president and we should always show him the utmost respect,” she said.

Another visitor, Michael Eastwood, had a different view.

“I actually think the artist is paying a compliment to the President. The way I see it, President Zuma looks like a man who is in full control.”

A 78-year-old Saturday Star reader, who did not want to be named said she was “bored” with hearing about the president’s penis.

“All men have it, what is the big deal? When Michaelangelo produced the statue of David, the Jews and Christians did not make a noise,” she said, referring to the Italian artist’s famous depiction of the Biblical figure David, a five-metre naked marble statue.

Yesterday 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. Imagine if your own father was presented in that degrading form. If it’s good why don’t you take pictures of their private parts and tweet them?” he asked.

The presidency expressed its shock and disgust at the “grotesque painting”.

“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 painting, 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 has 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 Spear was bought by a German private collector for R136 000.

The ANC also bemoaned – although more quietly – the use of its logo in Murray’s exhibition.

He depicts a poster of the ANC’s emblem with a “for sale” sign on top and the word “sold” stamped across it. Murray also took struggle posters and adapted them to read: “Amandla, we demand Chivas, BMWs and bribes”, “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder; you will be president” and “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the struggle for Chivas Regal, Mercs and Kick-backs”.

Jackson Mthembu, the ANC spokesman, called the works “vulgar” and an abuse of freedom of artistic expression.