Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Christ has come back in black: A sign of progress in South Africa

REUTERS , Cape Town, South Africa

President Thabo Mbeki delivers the Chief Albert Luthuli Memorial Lecture at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, earlier this year. Luthuli, in the background, was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

PHOTO: AFP

The apartheid rulers would hear none of it, but Christ is back and black in South Africa.

Forty years after an angry artist's painting infuriated South Africa's white establishment, Ronnie Harrison's Black Christ is on display in the National Gallery in Cape Town -- a decade since the country's first all-race election.

The 2.5m canvas, first unveiled in 1962, depicts Nobel laureate and long-time African National Congress (ANC) president Chief Albert Luthuli as Christ being crucified on the cross.

Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, widely known as the father of apartheid white rule, appears as his sadistic torturer.

Flanked by another former prime minister, BJ Vorster, Verwoerd oozes contempt as he pierces Christ's chest with a spear while a forlorn, mixed-race Madonna looks on.

"I do believe that a picture paints a thousand words, and I wanted to do something which the man in the street could recognize," said Harrison.

"Politically speaking, let's face it the black people were being crucified," said the 62-year-old artist standing proudly in front of his "prodigal son."

The painting was the ultimate insult to South Africa's deeply-religious Afrikaner rulers -- descendents of Dutch and French settlers from the 1700s -- just as their National Party was implementing apartheid with increasing brutality.

Luthuli won the Nobel prize in 1960 for advocating peaceful opposition to white rule, a campaign which finally succeeded in 1994 when whites ceded power and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president.

"The government answered his non-violent methods, of peaceful negotiations, by treating him more like a dog than a human being," Harrison said of his hero and role model.

The canvas was unveiled in St. Luke's Anglican Church in Cape Town in 1962. The white government's reaction was immediate, banning the painting and arresting the artist.

Further angered by a documentary by the US television network CBS that exposed its "blasphemy" to millions abroad, Verwoerd's police ultimately sought to destroy the painting.

Activists stepped in to rescue it, mounting a cloak-and-dagger operation that saw it wrapped in linoleum and put onto a cargo plane headed for Britain.

Despite the state's attempt to quash the painting's message, it quickly became a symbol for the oppression of black South Africans, with funding raised through overseas exhibitions sent back to help the victims of apartheid.

While the canvas toured Europe, Harrison was confined to his home and, over an eight-year period, was constantly rearrested and

interrogated.

"I knew what was going to happen -- a black Christ in a white South Africa, and I had insulted their icon. Verwoerd was worshipped as a deity by the Afrikaner nation, the same way the Nazis worshipped Hitler as their fuehrer," Harrison said.

"So you could imagine that the repercussions that were to follow were going to be very serious."

The apartheid government's anger subsided years later when the painting disappeared from public view and for 30 years it lay hidden in the London basement of Julius Baker, a lawyer who fled South Africa in the early 1960s.

A two-year search, ending in 1997, saw it return to Cape Town, but only after it survived flooding in the basement where it lay covered anonymously in cloth.

Harrison believes the painting, which went on permanent display only this year, has developed a life of its own protected by divine providence.

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