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South Africa gallery temporarily closes over Zuma portrait

Goodman Gallery says it received threats over the controversial painting showing the president as Lenin with his genitals exposed.

May 23, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A controversial portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg was defaced before the gallery decided to temporarily close.
A controversial portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma at the Goodman… (Jerome Delay/Associated…)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A South African art gallery that displayed a controversial painting showing the country's president with his genitals exposed announced Tuesday that it was closing its doors temporarily because of threats.

The decision came after vandals defaced the artwork earlier in the day.

Lara Koseff, spokeswoman for the Goodman Gallery, said there had been numerous threats made against the gallery after its display of "The Spear," by Cape Town artist Brett Murray. The painting has divided South Africa and ignited a debate on artistic freedom.

Koseff said the gallery closed its doors because visitors and staff were at risk of violence. The gallery moved the artwork to a safe location.

Two men smeared paint on the artwork, which depicted President Jacob Zuma posed like Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, but with his pants unzipped and genitals exposed. The men were arrested and charged with malicious damage.

A third man was arrested later Tuesday trying to spray-paint writing at the gallery entrance.

Gallery owner Liza Essers said in a statement that she was shocked at the public reaction to the artwork.

"The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much," she said. "I furthermore never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful physical action."

Before Tuesday, Zuma and the ruling African National Congress had sued the gallery to remove the painting and the newspaper City Press to make it remove a picture of the work from its website. The gallery, artist and newspaper were to oppose the action before a full bench of the High Court on Thursday.

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