Some Of The Most Controversial Works Of Art In Africa

Art is often controversial, rousing emotions and feelings of discomfort that can sometimes lead to conflict. The following pieces of art, made in or about Africa, challenged authority, religious traditions, or were seen to glorify controversial periods of history. In the process they elicited strong backlash toward either the artists, the subject matter, or those who attempted to suppress the work. Here are some of the most controversial works of art in Africa.


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Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria, South Africa

The Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria was built as a tribute to the Afrikaner people, and the arrival of white settlers in South Africa. The monument was intended to commemorate Afrikaner pioneers, but it’s controversial for depicting white settlers fighting off Zulus and cementing their authority as the people with the right to rule the country.

One analyst said, “Blacks loathed the monument’s implication that God gave Afrikaners the right to rule the nation and its lure as a rallying place for militant racists. Liberal whites were simply ashamed of it.”

Calls to tear down the monument never came to fruition. Today, its management focuses more on turning the Voortrekker Monument into a museum of Afrikaner culture and history that welcomes everyone and operates as a professional organization.

“Sex Retreat,” Kenya

Kenyan painter John Kamicha stirred up controversy in 2014 with his painting titled, “Sex Retreat,” which was part of the “Sex and the City” exhibition in Nairobi. When word got out about the painting, which depicts Christ surrounded by a cutout of him having sex on the Cross, backlash was so severe that the Alliance Francaise, the French cultural center that was hosting the exhibition, pulled it.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy’s work, Egypt

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian feminist activist, often finds herself in the midst of controversy with opinions that covers topics from Islamic extremism and sharia law to the oppression of women. In response to ISIS activity in the Middle East, she released a photo that depicted her menstruating naked on the ISIS flag and another woman defecating on the same, both with the words “ISIS” written on their bodies. The photo was so controversial that Elmahdy was forced to seek asylum in Europe.

Canon Rumanzi’s work, Uganda

Ugandan artist Canon Rumanzi has always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable, and much of his work is shocking in a country whose government enforces strict limits on freedom of expression and the media. One untitled piece depicts a young boy on his knees, pleasuring a grown man with a machine gun by his side. It’s meant as a critique of Western military domination in Africa but the sexual nature of the work upset local critics and Rumanzi’s pieces have been restricted in Uganda.

Phuthuma Seoka’s work, South Africa

During apartheid, it was illegal to depict the image of Nelson Mandela, one of just many restrictions on artistic expression. Wood carver Phuthuma Seoka became known for his anti-apartheid work and willingness to lambaste apartheid leaders. A 1985 piece depicted P.W. Botha as a blinkered caricature. His pieces were banned, but somehow made it into the public eye, their banned status ensuring that more and more people would see and remember them. Now they can be freely seen in various galleries and museums across South Africa.

“African Renaissance,” Senegal

The African Renaissance monument in Senegal was contentious for a variety of reasons, including the price tag — US$27 million dollars. The 160-foot sculpture, made by a North Korean propaganda artist, shows a bare-chested man holding a child in one arm and a woman in the other. Senegal paid for the sculpture by giving North Korea state-owned land in Senegal, a move that angered Senegalese citizens. Others were even more infuriated at the woman’s state of undress in the monument. She has one breast exposed, and a portion of one thigh. Despite its controversy, the monument has become one of Senegal’s most popular tourist attractions.

“The Spear,” South Africa

In 2012, South African painter Brett Murray revealed one of his new pieces titled, “The Spear,” part of his “Hail to the Thief” exhibition that was held at the cutting-edge Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. While the artist believed that his depiction of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed represented the greed and corruption in Zuma’s administration, some ruling ANC party members disagreed. The painting ended up being defaced and the ANC sued Murray, launching a healthy discussion around the country about freedom of expression.

“Three Dikgosi” Monument, Botswana

The Three Dikgosi monument in Gaborone, Botswana, depicts three dikgosi, or tribal chiefs — Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of the Bakwena, and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse. It stands nearly 5.5 meters tall over the central business district. Some people object to the monument, seeing it as a testament of the dominance of the Tswana people over other ethnic groups in the region. The main controversy came when the Botswana government awarded the project to the North Korean company Mansudae Overseas, rather than to local contractors.

“The Black Christ,” South Africa

The late Ronald Harrison, a South African painter, created “The Black Christ” in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in Gauteng. In the painting, Albert Luthuli, then president of the outlawed African National Congress, is depicted as Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers. The Roman soldiers are in the likeness of former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and former Minister of Justice John Vorster. Harrison was arrested and tortured by apartheid security police following the painting’s unveiling in Cape Town. “The Black Christ” was subsequently banned in South Africa and smuggled to the U.K. It returned to South African in 1997 after the end of apartheid. The painting is now housed at the South African National Gallery.

“China Loves Africa,” Kenya

Kenyan artist Michael Soi, who uses art to make social commentary, sought to explore Sino-African relations in his 18-piece series, “China Loves Africa.” He did not hold back. This piece from the series showed Africans having sex with Chinese businessmen in a satirical, if not dark, look on the link between business and sex tourism in Africa. Soi has referred to China as “Africa’s sugar daddy” in interviews about the piece. Soi’s work is often sexual and racial in nature. “China Loves Africa” was one of his more controversial pieces.

“Pain in the Mountains,” South Africa

In 1999, the late Trevor Makhoba unveiled “Pain in the Mountains,” which depicts a tribal circumcision ceremony in KwaZulu-Natal. The painting was extremely controversial. The practice of circumcision is not widely accepted, and the depiction of traditional and private ceremonies is still considered taboo. Today, however, KwaZulu-Natal’s government has been active in promoting clinical circumcision as a tool to help prevent the spread of HIV. Makhoba’s piece was recently shown publicly as a part of an exhibition looking at HIV, AIDS, and anti-retroviral treatment.

Rhodes Statue, Cape Town, South Africa

Looming over the steps of the University of Cape Town in South Africa sits an enormous statue of Cecil John Rhodes. A British colonialist, he founded the De Beers diamond empire and was considered an architect of enforced racial segregation in Southern Africa. The land on which UCT is built was donated by Rhodes upon his death, and the statue in his likeness was unveiled in 1934. While it was accepted as part of the scenery for many years, students and other community members called for its removal in early 2015, objecting to the glorification of a man responsible for much of the institutionalized discrimination that gave birth to apartheid.

A University of Cape Town council voted to remove the statue, which had become the focus of intense student protests, and media hand-wringing. The monument was taken down in April 2015 and will be stored for safekeeping, UCT’s council said.

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