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Bible-punchers pinch Bible art offensive

FINE ART: Hazel Friedman

The good folk of Bellville are in such a froth over a controversial art exhibition recently on display in the suburb’s public library that they have caused it to close prematurely. The show gave rise to cries of blasphemy and pornography because it featured – among other “obscenities” – penises and Bibles.

And so incensed were members of the town’s moral minority, who call themselves Christians for Truth, that they ignored the commandment: Thou shalt not steal. They removed a Bible from one of the works on display, refusing to return it until after the show.

This battle of biblical proportions began when artist Marianne Botha organised an exhibition by students from Stellenbosch University’s fine art department at the Bellville branch of the South African Association of Arts.

Appropriately called Bad Books (the gallery is located in a public library), the show aimed – according to the press release – to reveal the unknown, the unspoken and the undiscovered. And it included works by artists who are unashamedly upfront in letting it all hang out.

But conservative attitudes stiffened soon after the show opened on July 17. Gallery media representative Debbie Odendaal received complaints from Christians For Truth, a self-proclaimed “international” organisation campaigning for “the advancement of Christian values”, whose members obviously felt that art should stop short of certain kinds of elevation.

“Although the gallery has adopted a neutral stance, we understand why they are upset,”said Odendaal. “The exhibition is displayed in municipal property where children run about freely.”

Deferring to the wishes of the Christians and the more conservative of Bellville’s taxpayers, the gallery erected screens and warning signs stating that certain works might be disturbing to sensitive viewers, and advising parental guidance.

But the screens were not entirely effective and most of the gallery-goers simply ignored the warnings.That was when the Christians took take matters into their own hands. They removed the item that pricked their moral sensibilities hardest – a Bible belonging to an installation by Mark Coetzee.

In a strongly worded letter, reminiscent of the sermon on the Mount, Christians For Truth chairman George Ochse described an artwork by Jean Brundit as “an obviously positive comment on lesbian relationships”, and another photograph as pornographic. But his strongest condemnation was reserved for Coetzee’s installation. “It is unacceptable that our Christian faith can be desecrated in this manner,” he said. “We have taken the necessary step of removing this Bible and keeping it in our possession until the exhibition is over.”

A passionate anti-censorship lobbyist, Coetzee is no stranger to controversy, particularly at the Bellville Gallery. His images of naked men were almost banned, then censored and finally vandalised when he exhibited there earlier this year. Not only did he lay a charge of theft and damage to property in the wake of this latest incident, he also placed a notice condemning censorship next to his desecrated artwork.

Shortly after, the administrator of Cape Town’s Tygerberg substructure, (under which Bellville falls), demanded that works desecrating the Bible be removed and certain works screened off from the public.

The head of the fine arts department at Stellenbosch University joined forces with the artists and refused to bow to censorship.

In response the Bellville branch of the South African Association of Arts abruptly closed the show.

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