- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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 pits freedom of expression against the right to dignity, both guaranteed by South Africa’s constitution. The painting by Brett Murray went on display in a Johannesburg gallery this month and came to the ANC’s attention a week later, after local media reported it had been sold. Zuma, who has a reputation for promiscuity, took the depiction very personally and compared himself 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 Gauteng 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 the national interest and constitutional issues are at stake. She said the hearing would recommence on Thursday.

Zuma and the ANC sought to have the painting, titled “The Spear,” removed from the Goodman Gallery and to stop the newspaper City Press from displaying a photo of it on its website.

At about the time the hearing was under way, two men wielding cans of red and black paint calmly walked up to the painting hanging on a gallery wall and took turns defacing it.

The defaced painting is a black, red and yellow acrylic on canvas that was priced at 120,000 rand (about $15,000) before an anonymous buyer purchased it recently.

In a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s brightly colored Marilyn Monroe portraits, “The Spear” depicts Zuma in a suit, looking off into the distance.

“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 used his hand to smear black paint over the president’s face and down the painting. The men were finally detained by gallery staff _ the second man 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 extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much,” gallery owner Liza Essers said in a statement. Murray, the artist, through the gallery, refused to comment.

In a statement on the defacement, the ANC said it “cannot condone any action that is not legal.” The party then inserted race into the debate by noting that the first man accused of defacing the painting, who is white, was arrested without incident, while the second man, who is black, was shown in a tussle with gallery guards. The ANC compared that to apartheid South Africa, when blacks were “treated differently from their white counterparts.”

Witnesses, though, said they did not at first understand what the first man was doing, and that he then quietly moved aside and did not resist when gallery security detained him. The guards tried to stop the second man from defacing the painting, and he resisted, witnesses said.

Police spokesman Vish Naidoo said the two unidentified men, aged 58 and 25, are expected to appear in a magistrate’s court Thursday on a charge of malicious damage to property.

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