Home » Africa's International Relations » Two Nude Leaders: Very Different Reactions

Two Nude Leaders: Very Different Reactions

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This week has provided for an opportunity to compare Canada and South Africa again.  This time, it is over nude paintings of both respective leaders.  Yes, both Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa have recently been depicted in the buff.  Both in a rather unflattering way.

Now when contrasting to the two nude depictions, I am not seeking to “compare” how well each painting is hung (pun intended).  Rather – to speak about the reactions towards each.

In Canada, the painting of Stephen Harper has been met with some criticism but mostly humour.  Indeed the painting, seen here and censored for the rather sensitive Canadian public, is rather funny.  But it does make a real political comment.

Image courtesy of Canoe Media (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2012/05/18/19776471.html)

It depicts the Prime Minister lounging and all around him people are fawning. It really speaks to the current politic environment in Canada where all crowd around the man with incredible political power and who inspires fear. So much fear, it appears, that no one in the painting appears fazed that he is nude…just grateful to be in his presence.  I digress. It is a form of political commentary that has inspired debate and discussion about Harper as PM and the appropriateness of this depiction.  The debate has been rather polite, if not gentile, when considering the issue (Harper’s leadership style) versus the fact that he is a weenie (sorry, will stop now).  But the debate has been between commentators and NOT really involved much intervention from politico’s acting on behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada .

In contrast, in South Africa, a nude painting of President Jacob Zuma was also recently released. Actually, it was more a painting of the President with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. The painting has received a great deal of attention…actually it has been down right controversial as some believe it promotes racist stereotypes of black African men and their “supposed” unbridled sexuality. So controversial that it was just defaced today (May 22, 2012).  Seen here courtesy of the Mail & Guardian (http://mg.co.za/article/2012-05-22-now-rated-x-controversial-zuma-artwork-defaced)


However, I think the racist argument is misplaced.  First, Zuma is President of the South Africa and takes on a different persona to that of being just a black African man. Second, the man has a reputation of being promiscuous – he is routinely criticized for his sexual practices and many in South Africa struggle with his polygamous family life that includes 19+ children and two more fiances waiting in the wings.  Such difficulty in accepting Zuma’s private life is hardly racist and should be open to political debate and criticism. On top of this – his personal approach to governance leaves South Africa divided, inside and out of his political party.

This is why it makes it all the more shocking and concerning that the ruling ANC has gone so far as to submit a petition to the High Court in South Africa to have the painting taken down.  To censor this piece of political commentary of a controversial President.   The ANC in justifying its approach notes that the painting  demeans the President, violates his privacy and has called on ANC supporters to protest against the gallery.

And here the difference between Canada and South Africa lies.  The ANC and its vociferous reaction has seen protests taking place outside of the gallery.  Reports in the Mail & Guardian have noted that some are holding up placards saying “Say no to artistic expression!”. The placard slogans are apparently supported by the ANC through the appearance of their logo.

This challenge to the freedom of artistic expression was only solidified in the defacing of the painting.  What is particularly concerning about all of this is just how it really smacks of Cultural Revolution type rhetoric and action ala China and implies that perhaps the democratic traditions of the ANC Government are not so pure as we all thought.  Indeed – the notion that the painting violates Zuma’s personal privacy is spurious and legal hogwash.  How can a imagined image of a persons genitals violate their privacy?

It is an interesting contrast between the two countries – both have had their political leaders depicted nude in the last couple of weeks but the reaction has been completely different and taken on differing undertones.  Canada – there has been some righteous indignation – but even the Prime Minister’s Communications Advisor found it funny, noting on Twitter that we all know the Prime Minister is a cat person (referring to the dog painted next to him).   The Conservative Party of Canada hasn’t made a peep.

In South Africa, the painting has inspired a serious outcry against the artist and the work by the ANC.  It has taken on the tone of restricting artistic expression, free speech and suggests political criticism is not welcome.  The ANC’s official legal action, whilst permitted under law, also raises questions about its democratic credentials and priorities.  Is the ANC going to react this way every time it disagrees with a political statement?  Indeed, using up financial resources and time on this issue seems rather befuddling when there are over 25 million people living in poverty in South Africa. It also seems befuddling given South Africa’s commitment to free speech and human rights.

Today’s defacing, the public and legal protests beg some questions.  First, what is the role and intention of the governing party – the ANC – in leading the charge on this issue?  Second, is the space and are the boundaries for political criticism in a democratic South Africa changing?   I think so.



  1. Robert Kowalenko says:

    David, you don’t mention the pink elephant in the room: the reaction is so vitriolic in SA, because it is seen as harking back to old apartheid and colonial racist depictions of the black man. And hence it is seen as a racist representation of the current black South African leader and an attack on all Africans, rather than as personal political criticism. Whether this way of viewing the painting is correct, I don’t know, but not mentioning this aspect in the affair is missing the elephant.

    • Hi Robert – thanks for raising this important issue. I am reticent to give too much space to the racism argument as this is also a political leader – the President. The President represents all South Africans and really just because he happens to be black, any unfortunate depiction of him can’t be counted as racist. He is a political leader and should be open to political comment/criticism. It also comments on him personally – his promiscuity. Indeed, if this issue is over racism, then why does the ANC avoid claiming this in its the High Court petition? They claim it is over privacy…something which I would agree with our colleague Prof Lucy Allais is equally as spurious as the racism claim.

      Finally – why are we jumping to the conclusion that President Zuma in anyway represents or embodies or characterizes the “typical” black African man? I am sure many would contend that the President’s cultural values do not represent them.

  2. adnc says:

    if its okay to paint nude leaders why then did you cover the penis?

  3. Apparently someone in Canada was unimpressed, but the complaint was dismissed. For me, both images were an assault on the senses and I wish I could simply unsee them. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/human-rights-tribunal-dismisses-complaint-about-nude-stephen-harper-painting/article4594406/

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