The Black Christ
Written and produced by Damian Samuels
Written and produced by Damian Samuels, a Masters fellow at the CHR at UWC, ‘The Black Christ’ is a documentary film about a legendary painting by South African artist, Ronald Harrison. Painted in 1962, it depicts a crucified Christ being tormented by two Roman centurions. The face of the crucified man is that of Chief Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC and the first African recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize (1961). The faces of the two Roman centurions are those of Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa and one of the main architects of apartheid, and B.J. Vorster, Verwoerd’s ruthless Minister of Justice and Police. The painting’s metaphoric depiction of the suffering of blacks under apartheid is ingenious as it resonates with a western audiences’ sense of compassion for human suffering.
When the painting was unveiled, it instantly become a powerful symbol of defiance against the prevailing harsh and unjust political system in South Africa. But the state viewed it as blasphemous and subversive, since it portrayed the social paradox of a racist state purporting to hold Christian values. The apartheid authorities banned the work from any public exhibition and attempted to seize and destroy the canvas. But a London based anti-apartheid organization, the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), smuggled the work out of South Africa, and for the next six years the painting travelled throughout Europe. During this period, the painting is said to have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling for the legal and financial aid of political prisoners and their families in South Africa.
After its European tour, the painting ‘vanished’ and Harrison lost all contact with his creation. Subsequent to the painting’s exile from South Africa and Ronald Harrison’s personal meeting with Chief Luthuli, he was persistently harassed by the South African security police. His arrests culminated in brutal physical torture that affected him throughout his life, whilst he also endured sadistic threats against his family.
After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the search for ‘The Black Christ’ painting intensified and in 1997, after a series of remarkably coincidental events, the canvas re-surfaced in the London-based home of a self-exiled South African human rights lawyer, Julius Baker, who had safely guarded the painting for the preceding 30 years.
Amidst intense international and local media coverage, the painting returned to South Africa in 1997. It was purchased by the South African National Gallery in 1998.