A painting undermines the highest office in the country, government. Picture: Gallo Images
Phuti Mosomane and Sapa
A painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed undermines the highest office in the country, government said on Friday.
"It also goes against the grain of African morality, culture and the spirit of Ubuntu as well as nation building," spokesman Jimmy Manyi said in a statement.
"Government respects artists' rights to freedom of expression, however, we believe these rights need to be exercised responsibly without violating the rights of other people."
The 1.85m-high painting titled "The Spear" is part of Cape Town artists Brett Murray's "Hail to the Thief II" exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
The government was calling on the gallery to take down the painting and wanted the media to stop publicising it, said Manyi.
Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile said he respected artists' works and upheld their right to freedom of expression, but asked that they respect the rights of others.
"I... urge our artists and the artistic community in general to work with us to increase the contribution of our sector to the national economy and more importantly to build a social inclusive society," he said in a statement.
According to the gallery, a meeting was planned with Mashatile after he called to express concern.
The African Christian Democratic Party said obscenity was not freedom of expression.
"While we defend freedom of expression in all its forms, the ACDP will always uphold human dignity and will never condone any form of obscenity," it said in a statement.
"Those who believe in freedom of expression without limits must remember that dignity is a founding value of the South African Constitution."
It called on the gallery to remove the painting and urged the City Press newspaper to remove a photo of the painting from its website.
The ANC earlier sent the gallery a lawyers' letter demanding its removal, but gallery spokeswoman Lara Koseff said its lawyers had responded that it would stay until the show was over.
"We feel it is censorship to take the image down," said Koseff. She said Zuma had not been to see the work.
The ANC also wanted the newspaper to remove the picture from its website, but the it also refused and said it would leave this to a court to decide.
The picture has since been shown on other websites, including Timeslive.
The Association of Self Sustainable Communities (ASC) expressed disgust at the portrait.
"The art is an attack to all men, black men in particular. We see this as a demonstration of deeply seated hatred," ASC said in a statement.
Earlier, the presidency said it was shocked and disgusted 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," spokesman Mac Maharaj said.
He said Zuma was among the primary architects of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and would defend those rights, but people had to realise they were not absolute.
Zuma was also a citizen with a constitutional right to dignity and "no human being deserves to be denigrated in this shocking manner".
The presidency was concerned that the painting "perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, including especially the president".
Maharaj said because of "intense hatred" of the new democratic administration or the ANC, artists were failing to ensure disagreements were communicated in a cultured and civilised manner.
The presidency was also shocked that some media houses were eager to publish the work.
The SA Council of Churches in Limpopo found the painting immoral and in bad taste, and said Zuma should be afforded dignity and respect because he was a husband and a father.
Visitors and delivery people took photos of the painting on their smartphones, and local and international media took footage on Friday.
Koseff said artists' opinions were not those of the gallery, but it was always interested in work that created dialogue.
Murray's work includes a set of gold knuckledusters with the word "viva" inscribed on them, a crest with the map of Africa and word "mine" in the motto scroll, a large primate mating with a smaller one titled "The Party and the People" and an image with the words "predator elite", from a speech by Congress of SA Trade Unions secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi when he spoke out against corruption.
Cosatu also found the painting of Zuma demeaning.
"This picture is offensive and disrespectful not only to an individual, but to the democratically elected President of South Africa and therefore to the whole country and the people of South Africa," Cosatu said.
A guard with a bullet-proof vest was posted at the gallery door.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union said it found the painting, and media coverage of it, dehumanising and embarrassing for Zuma and his family.
“As much as we support both freedom of expression and the right of artists to express themselves freely we also strongly feel that art should not be used to obliterate the dignity of others... totally dismiss the lame reason that this photo is meant to stimulate debate...
“How do you stimulate debate when you tarnish the image of others?” the Young Communist League of South Africa National Spokesperson Mangaliso Khonza said.
“What kind of debate is this that seeks to be debated by humiliating the state president by showing his genitals? This is a purely inhumane conception of debate and should never be allowed to flourish disregarding who might be the target of that art” he added.
Meanwhile the ANC has launched an urgent court application to try and stop the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and the City Press newspaper from displaying a painting.