Obituary: Ronald Harrison - Painter of the 'Black Christ'

17 July 2011 - 03:07 By Chris Barron

Ronald Harrison, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 71, performed an act of calculated, moral courage that deserves a special place in the annals of resistance to apartheid.

In 1962, at the age of 22, he completed a painting in which he depicted the banned former president of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, as the crucified Christ, and the two most powerful and feared people in South Africa at the time, prime minister HF Verwoerd and minister of justice and police John Vorster, who had just introduced his 90-day detention-without-trial law, as Roman centurions taunting him as he hung on the cross.

Then he put it on display at his church in Salt River, Cape Town.

Nothing was more likely to arouse the fury of the supposedly God-fearing, white Afrikaner establishment than this, although his intention was more serious.

Born on March 18 1940, Harrison was a deeply religious, politically aware young artist who had been looking for a non-violent way to express the anger and revulsion which he, as a coloured man, felt for apartheid.

He had been influenced by a painting of the stations of the cross which Maud Sumner did for St Mary's Catholic cathedral in Cape Town and which he gazed at for hours. But the precise idea for his painting came to him in a vision as he lay in bed one night.

He was worried that it might be blasphemous, but his priest arranged for him to meet the Anglican archbishop Joost de Blank, who gave it his blessing.

Harrison studied paintings of the crucifixion at the SA National Gallery. Then, using the lounge of the small flat where he lived with his family above a butchery in Salt River, he set to work on a canvass screwed to the wall.

After six months, it was finished. De Blank came to see it and told him he thought it was good, but "very, very dangerous".

He invited the press to see it, and the next day the story of the Black Christ was in every major English-speaking newspaper in the country.

The response in the Afrikaans press a few days later was vitriolic.

They urged the government to take strong action. Die Kerkbode, official mouthpiece of the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, which was headed by Vorster's brother, demanded that Luthuli repudiate his portrayal as Christ.

After the painting was displayed at St Luke's, Harrison got a call from the ANC underground warning him that the Security Branch was going to pounce.

A week later, six policemen came to get him and the painting. The attorney-general refused to prosecute, but the painting was banned by the censorship board. It was hidden in various homes before being smuggled to Britain.

It attracted wide publicity there and in the US. Harrison received an offer to study fine art in the US, but was refused a passport.

The Norwegian embassy drove him through the night to Stanger to meet his hero, Luthuli, who was under a banning order. When he got back, he was taken to Caledon Square police station, where he was interrogated and tortured.

After being exhibited in Europe, the painting disappeared, and it was only in 1997 that Harrison traced it to the London basement of a South African expat.

Harrison brought it home and it was exhibited at St George's cathedral in Cape Town.

First in line to milk the attendant publicity was the National Party, which, with no apparent sense of irony, presented him with a special merit award for his contribution to the visual arts. The SA National Gallery then acquired the Black Christ and stuck it in the basement.

Harrison never married.