Ronald Harrison, the South African artist who gained an international reputation for his controversial painting “Black Christ”, has died in Cape Town.
The much discussed work, created in 1961, depicts the former ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli flanked by two Roman soldiers who bear the faces of apartheid’s architect, former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, and his justice minister, John Vorster. The painting also shows Chief Albert Luthuli as a symbol of the persecuted black majority and conceived by Harrison who discovered that the Nobel Laureate was the son of a Christian missionary and a member of the local Methodist Church. When asked about the painting, Harrison stated, “I became obsessed with the idea of taking some constructive action in the liberation movement through the medium of my artistic talent. How could a government that professes to be Christian perpetrate such immoral deeds and inflict so much pain and suffering on its own countrymen simply because its supporters were of another race, another colour, and another creed?”
He began painting at the age of 16. In 1962, during South Africa’s apartheid era, his most famous work, Black Christ, was unveiled at St Luke’s Church in the Cape Town suburb of Salt River. It depicted African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli as Christ crucified, flanked by two Roman centurions, then National Party prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd and justice minister John Vorster. As a result he was arrested and tortured by the security police. The painting was smuggled to the United Kingdom after it was banned in South Africa, and was only returned in 1997. Black Christ is currently stored at the South African National Gallery and a replica is on display at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
In 2007, a proposal to permanently exhibit the painting created an outcry; “It’s amazing that over 40 years after I painted it, my painting still seems capable of creating controversy and sparking debate,” Harrison stated,at the time.
The artist recently completed work on a fifth series of paintings and was planning to exhibit them in the Northern Cape this summer. The Artist Ronald Harrison who died of cancer age 71 on the 28th of June 2011 in Mitchell’s Plain.