S.African president opens case against artist

May 24, 2012 - 10:07 AM
South Africa Art Spat

A ruling party African National Congress (ANC) supporter with her forehead painted with President Jacob Zuma's name outside the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday May 24, 2012. President Jacob Zuma is asking the High Court to issue an order that display of the now-defaced painting violates his constitutional right to dignity. The gallery and the artist counter that freedom of expression, also protected by the constitution, is at stake. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A lawyer for South Africa's president broke down in tears Thursday as he tried to convince three judges that the display of a portrait that depicts the president's genitals is unlawful.

The three South Gauteng High Court judges called a recess after the emotional display. After a break of more than two hours, judges and lawyers agreed to resume at a date to be decided later.

President Jacob Zuma is asking the High Court to issue an order that display of the now-defaced painting violates his constitutional right to dignity. The gallery and the artist counter that freedom of expression, also protected by the constitution, is at stake.

Two men had walked into the Goodman Gallery Tuesday and defaced the portrait with paint, saying later they were acting to defend Zuma. The gallery then removed the painting and closed indefinitely. Still, the case is being closely watched because it raises important constitutional issues in a new democracy.

Thursday's hearing was broadcast live on national television. Leaders of the ruling African National Congress were present, as were several of the 70-year-old Zuma's children, who have joined their father in the legal challenge. Outside the courthouse, hundreds of Zuma supporters danced and sang.

As arguments began, the judges closely questioned Zuma's lawyer Gcina Malindi on points of law, race, art and the limits of their ability to control publication on the Internet.

Malindi argued that the court should take into account not just the opinions of a "super class" of art experts, but how the painting was likely to be seen by the country's black majority, denied education under apartheid. Malindi, who is black, said that many blacks still lived in poverty after the end of apartheid in 1994. He then sobbed. His colleagues rushed to put their arms around his shoulders.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu described Malindi as a leading member of the ANC who had been tortured for his anti-apartheid activities.

"That's why this is emotional," Mthembu said.

The painting by Brett Murray went on display at the Goodman, one of the country's leading galleries, early this month and came to the ANC's attention a week later, after local media reported it had been sold to an anonymous buyer.

"The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Zuma contended in an affidavit filed Tuesday with the court.

In a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol's brightly colored Marilyn Monroe portraits or Soviet-era propaganda posters, "The Spear" depicts Zuma in a suit, looking off into the distance. What could be a codpiece accentuates his genitals, though some observers say the painting depicts genitals.

Zuma, 70, has been married six times — he currently has four wives, as his Zulu culture allows. He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.

The painting is part of an exhibition of Murray's sculptures and paintings called "Hail to the Thief II." The ANC denounced the show as an "abuse of freedom of artistic expression."