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South Africa ruling party drops legal bid over Zuma painting

Published on 30/05/2012

South Africa's ruling ANC will drop its legal bid to ban a painting depicting President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed, after a gallery agreed to permanently take down the work, it said Wednesday.

The African National Congress went to court last week demanding a ban on the painting by satirical artist Brett Murray, charging that his depiction of Zuma was “indecent”.

In an apparent political victory for the ANC, which also staged three marches in just under two weeks to protest the painting, the Goodman gallery agreed it would no longer display the work in the gallery or on its website.

In a joint agreement the two sides recognised that the painting — one of the most controversial artworks in the country’s post-apartheid history — “has conjured up past historical hurts and humiliations for some people.”

“The applicants will withdraw” the case, which had been lodged before a high court, said Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers, reading from the statement.

“As gesture of goodwill and because of the fact that the image is now widely in the public domain, I will now take down the image, at some point, from our website,” Essers added.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu confirmed: “Indeed, we are no longer taking the Goodman Gallery to court.”

He said the party would also drop its case against a local weekly, City Press, which published an image of the “terribly offensive” painting.

The painting is a red-and-black work that features Zuma mimicking a pose by Vladimir Lenin in a Soviet-era propaganda poster — but with his penis exposed.

Amid a national furore, it was vandalised last week, forcing the gallery to remove it from display and temporarily close. The gallery re-opened Wednesday afternoon.

The painting was bought by a private German collector before the opening of the exhibition, which was originally to run May 10 through June 16.

“The collector wants the painting in its defaced form,” said Essers.

Mthembu said during the press conference at the gallery that “we might not like many of the paintings that are displayed in here but we respect the rights of the Goodman Gallery, we respect the freedom of artistic expression.”

He rejected accusations that the party, which led the struggle against white-minority rule, was suppressing criticism.

“Are we fascists? We are not. We have not killed anyone, we have not even threatened anyone,” he said.

But Essers, who said the gallery and its staff had received threats, questioned the ANC’s tactics.

“I don’t feel that marches and boycotts are the way forward. I think that is bullying,” she said in response to a question.

“I think conversation and dialogue would have been more appropriate.”

Mthembu for his part called for a national dialogue on the interpretation of freedom of expression as enshrined in the country’s constitution.