ANC ending lawsuit over portrait showing S. African leader with genitals exposed

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Story highlights

  • Brett Murray's painting, called "The Spear," was displayed at a Johannesburg gallery
  • Portrait of President Jacob Zuma was removed from public show after protesters defaced it
  • South Africa's ruling ANC says the artwork offends the president's dignity
  • The controversy over the portrait has raised questions about freedom of speech

South Africa's ruling African National Congress said Wednesday the party would drop the lawsuit it filed over a portrait of President Jacob Zuma that shows his genitals.

The announcement was made by ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery, where the controversial portrait was initially displayed.

The work by artist Brett Murray was removed from public show after it was defaced by protesters last week amid a storm of protests and condemnation, the South African Broadcasting Corporation said.

Called "The Spear," it is reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda posters. Red on one half and black on the other, the painting portrays Zuma in a proud stance with his genitals prominently exposed.

Zuma's supporters in the ANC say the portrait is insulting and call it an attack on both the president and his party.

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Mthembu's announcement that the party was dropping its legal action came a day after its supporters took part in a protest march to the gallery.

Speaking alongside Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers, Mthembu expressed a wish for unity.

A statement on the ANC website Wednesday said: "The pain and the hurt of the past two weeks caused by the Spear portrait as expressed above is now fully appreciated by the Goodman Gallery and the Artist, Brett Murray.

"Both say, 'it was never the Goodman Gallery's nor Brett Murray's intention to hurt anyone or harm their dignity, the Gallery and Murray regrets the pain that the display of the painting has caused.' "

Lessons should be learned from the furor, the statement said, adding that the gallery, artist and all South Africans should commit themselves to working for "a South Africa that is united in its diverse cultures" and respects all individuals' rights.

The Sunday newspaper City Press removed an image of the portrait from its website after the ANC threatened a boycott, but it complained Monday that the ANC still wants the paper to apologize for running it in the first place.

The Democratic Alliance, the ANC's official opposition, said The Spear "was brilliant as a work of political satire, which is also why it became an instant icon."

Calls for the painting's censorship, the party said, indicate a dangerous move away from the right to free speech.

If he felt insulted, Zuma should have sued the artist rather than calling for the painting's removal, the Democratic Alliance said.

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