JOHANNESBURG (AP) - South African President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress sought a court order Tuesday to have a painting depicting the president’s genitals removed from an art gallery but two men took matters into their own hands by defacing the portrait with gobs of paint.
The case is spiced with freedom of expression on the one hand and the right to dignity on the other and emerged after the painting by Brett Murray went on display in a Johannesburg gallery early this month and was reported on in local media. Zuma, who has a reputation for promiscuity, took it very personally and compared himself somewhat ironically to a rape victim. Zuma himself was put on trial for rape, and acquitted, in 2006.
“The portrayal has ridiculed and caused me humiliation and indignity,” Zuma contended in an affidavit filed Tuesday with the South Guateng High Court in Johannesburg.
Presiding over the hearing in a courtroom a few kilometers (miles) from the gallery, Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane said the full three-judge bench should hear the case because national interest and the constitutional issues are at stake. South Africa’s constitution protects the right to dignity as well as to freedom of expression. She said the hearing would recommence on Thursday.
Around the time of the hearing, two men wielding cans of red and black paint calmly walked up to the painting hanging on the wall in the gallery and took turns defacing it.
“Now it’s completely and utterly destroyed,” said Iman Rappetti, a reporter for a South African TV channel who happened to be on the scene at the time as her camera rolled.
Her channel showed a man in a tweed jacket painting a red X over the president’s genital area and then his face. Next, a man in a hoodie smeared black paint over the president’s face and down the painting with his hand. The men were finally detained by gallery staff _ one was head-butted and thrown to the ground before he was handcuffed _ and police took them away.
Rappetti said she initially thought the first man was part of a performance art piece, and said staff at the gallery was slow to react.
The Goodman had said in a statement a day earlier that it was stepping up security. After the vandalism the gallery was closed as a throng of reporters and onlookers gathered outside.
The gallery’s attorney, Greg Palmer, said its owners are filing a charge of malicious damage to property. He said they did not know the identities of the two men who defaced the painting and that the gallery would oppose efforts by police to confiscate the defaced painting as evidence.
After the painting was defaced, a third man spray-painted the first three letters of the word “respect” on a wall near the gallery’s front gate before he was taken away by police. He shouted that the gallery had shown the president disrespect.
Back at the courthouse, more than 100 pro-Zuma protesters gathered outside. Donavan Cloete held a black, green and gold ANC flag and wore a T-shirt with the slogan: “President Zuma has a right to human dignity and privacy.”
“The artist has got his own views on the political situation. He has a right to express himself,” Cloete said. “On the other hand, there’s got to be a line drawn as to what constitutes satire and what constitutes insult.”
But Sophia Morren, a ceramicist who was in the gallery with her daughter when the painting was defaced, said Zuma had shown little respect for himself. She referred to Zuma’s six marriages _ he currently has four wives, his 21 children, and his acknowledgment in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.