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The dust is finally settling on the storm that was kicked off in South Africa by a controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.
The country that boasts one of the most liberal constitutions in the world and the only one on the African continent with a constitutional provision that protects and defends the rights of gays and lesbians , had its values put up to the test after an artist ruffled feathers by a painting that questioned the moral values of the ruling African National Congress .
For weeks, the storm ignited by the painting called ‘The Spear’, raged on, sucking in Goodman Gallery that displayed it and City Press, a weekly newspaper that had published it on its website. The matter eventually found its way into the corridors of justice, where the ruling ANC sought redress against the two institutions. The party also mobilised its supporters to stage protests outside the courtroom when the case it filed came up for hearing. They also matched to the gallery and called for a boycott of City Press , regarded as one of the country’s most authoritative newspapers.
The controversy has cooled down now that the newspaper has removed the artwork from its website, the gallery pulled it down after it was defaced. The ANC has withdrawn its lawsuit.
Throughout this drama, one issue that came up frequently in the huge debate that it kicked off, was the issue of artistic licence, specifically in Africa.
“We say No to abuse of artistic expression”, a placard screamed during one of the protests called by the ANC outside a court in Johannesburg after a case the ruling party had filed came up for hearing.
In other parts of Africa novelists such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, playwright Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, and poet Jack Mapanje of Malawi have been locked up in the past for their critical writings.
Where does much of Africa stand when it comes to artists challenging the ethos by which much of the continent is guided?. What role should art play in African society? Can art be used in modern Africa to correct ills of society?. What of African playwrights and novelists who have been thrown behind bars for too much scrutiny of national governments.