LAID BARE: This controversial painting has invited outrage from the ANC and other critics for its crass insensitivity.
Modelled on a 17th Century Rembrandt masterpiece, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the work depicts Nelson Mandela lying semi naked on a table, dead, having his autopsy performed by Aids activist Nkosi Johnson, who died in 2001, aged 12. Surrounding them are South African dignitaries including former presidents FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki and current President Jacob Zuma. The leader of the opposition, Helen Zille, is also in attendance, as are ministers Trevor Manuel, Cyril Ramaphosa and Desmond Tutu.
The ANC says the piece violates Nelson Mandela's dignity, and has accused the Mail & Guardian newspaper of "gutter journalism and soul-less sensationalism" for publishing it.
But artist Yiull Damaso has defended his work. He says his aim is to make people confront death, telling the BBC: "Nelson Mandela is a great man, but he's just a man... The eventual passing of Mr Mandela is something that we will have to face, as individuals, as a nation". South Africans do not speak of Mandela dying, out of reverence for him as well as their own denial of the inevitable.
The fact that the work features contemporary politicians in an apparent (if dubious) commentary on current affairs places it firmly in the realm of editorial cartoons, and that is why we have published it here. We feel the strength of the parody (of the original Rembrandt) and the gravitas of the subject matter, and the storm it has created all make it too important a work to ignore, and we would never call for its banning. That would be a far greater desecration of what Mandela stands for.
We agree that the cartoon is crass, insensitive and even sensationalist. And we don't think that the point it attempts to make, nor those that it might be suggesting (does it blame Mandela in part for Johnson's death, for example?), are either well considered nor well made. And so, we don't think the end justifies the means in this nonetheless interesting piece.