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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 01:18 GMT 02:18 UK
The return of South Africa's Black Christ
By Richard Hamilton
BBC, Cape Town

One of South Africa's most controversial paintings has gone on display more than 40 years after it was banned by the apartheid government.

Black Christ
The painting was discovered in a London basement
The Black Christ depicts former African National Congress leader Chief Albert Luthuli being crucified by former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and his Justice Minister John Vorster.

The oil painting, which was the creation of Cape Town artist Ronnie Harrison back in 1961, now hangs in the National Gallery in Cape Town.

It forms the centrepiece of an exhibition on 10 years of democracy.

The picture has an extraordinary history.

It was considered blasphemous and subversive by the South African government, which tried to have it destroyed.

In 1962, it was smuggled out of South Africa by anti-apartheid activists who passed it to the Canon of St Paul's Cathedral in London, John Collins.

I really believe divine providence saved the painting
Ronnie Harrison
It hung in the cathedral but later toured the UK and Europe where it raised millions for the victims of apartheid.

But when the South African authorities realised the Black Christ had left the country, they arrested Ronnie Harrison and repeatedly interrogated and tortured him.

"I suffered the most severe humiliation and interrogation over a period of seven days," says Mr Harrison.

"Everything that they say about those horrendous Nazi-style tactics are true. It's just too humiliating to talk about."

'Prodigal son'

The Black Christ disappeared for 30 years, until Julius Baker, a South African ex-communist who was in exile in London, saw an appeal for the painting in a newspaper, and realised it was the same picture that was gathering dust in his basement.

One of the most remarkable twists of fate was that although every other house in the street where Mr Baker lived was flooded by heavy rain, the Black Christ remained undamaged.

Ronnie Harrison, with The Black Christ
Ronnie Harrison (r) was tortured for painting the Black Christ
"I really believe divine providence saved the painting, someone was looking after it," Mr Harrison says.

He was stunned when he heard the painting had been found again:

"I felt like the father when he saw the prodigal son again. It was so emotional to be reunited with this painting."

The painting returned to South Africa in 1997 but had been kept in storage in the National Gallery.

Chief Luthuli's daughter, Albertina Luthuli, has been instrumental in getting the painting out on display again, and it is now taking pride of place at the entrance to the gallery.

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