Could Someone Die Over This Painting?

Could Someone Die Over This Painting?

By Bob Duggan

Art isn’t usually a life or death matter, but the controversy over South African artist Brett Murray’s The Spear might end in bloodshed. When Murray decided to paint South African President Jacob Zuma along the lines of a famous poster of Lenin, but with the added detail of prominent genitalia, he knew he was courting controversy but may not have realized just how heated (and dangerous) the debate would get. Now that the painting has been vandalized, it’s natural to ask if that violence might extend to the artist or to those who support his right to free expression. Could someone die over this painting?

Zuma’s a controversial figure in South African politics. A polygamist, Zuma has been charged with raping a woman while serving as deputy president and has also expressed the belief that showering after sex will protect you from HIV. Aside from his sexual transgressions, Zuma is mired in a variety of scandals that have ruined his reputation. Murray titled the show in which The Spear appears “Hail to the Thief II,” a sequel to an earlier politically charged exhibition.

The prominent painted penis alludes to Zuma’s sexual escapades, obviously. (Apparently one South African cartoonist mocks Zuma by drawing him with a shower cap that refers to Zuma’s strange safe sex ideas.)  The pose itself pays homage to Victor Ivanov’s poster Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live, which refers to the Communist affiliation of Zuma's party, the African National Congress (ANC). Zuma and the ANC have asked the courts to shut Murray’s show down. "The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity," Zuma claims in the court affidavit. In a separate statement, the ANC condemned The Spear as an "abuse of freedom of artistic expression." It’s up to the court now to determine which takes precedence—Murray’s claim to freedom of expression or Zuma’s claim to personal dignity. Supporters of Zuma base their opinion on the idea that Murray’s crossed over the line from satire to insult. Supporters of Murray wonder how Zuma can claim humiliation when he’s become famous (and infamous) for his many women, many children, and many “scientific” theories.

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