Two men wielding cans of red and black paint entered a Johannesburg gallery Tuesday and defaced a painting that draws attention to the South African president’s genitals and his reputation for promiscuity.“Now it’s completely and utterly destroyed,” said Iman Rappetti, a reporter for a South African television channel who was in the Goodman Gallery when the men struck.
Her channel showed footage of a man in a suit painting a red X over the president’s genital area and then his face. A man in a hoodie then used his hands to rub black paint over the president’s face and down the painting. Rapetti said the men were detained by gallery staff and police arrived later to take them away.
Painted in a style reminiscent of pop art, Brett Murray’s acrylic-on-canvas work “The Spear” has been on display since early this month, but made the news only last week when it came to the attention of South Africa’s governing African National Congress.
Earlier Tuesday in a Johannesburg courtroom a few kilometers from the gallery, a judge said that in an unusual move a full bench of the High Court would hear the ANC and President Jacob Zuma’s challenge of the gallery’s rights to display the painting.
Rappetti said she thought the first man was part of a performance art piece.
The Goodman, which had said in a statement a day earlier that it was stepping up security, refused to comment and closed the gallery as reporters and passersby gathered outside its gate.
The gallery’s attorney, Greg Palmer, said they are going to file a charge for malicious damage to property.
“The gallery has closed,” Palmer said, “and they feel that their security is sufficient.”
Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane had been expected to begin hearing the case against the painting Tuesday. Citing national interest, she said the case would start Thursday. Kathree-Setiloane and two other High Court judges, among the most senior in South Africa, will hear the case.
Sophia Morren, a ceramicist who saw the painting defaced Tuesday, said she knew Murray had been celebrated for anti-apartheid art work in the past.
“Why is it good then and it is not good now?” she said of Murray’s work. “You start proscribing to artists what they can and cannot paint, and then we are lost.”
The painting is part of an exhibition of Murray’s sculptures and paintings titled “Hail to the Thief II.” The ANC has called the show an “abuse of freedom of artistic expression.”
“The Spear” has been priced at about $15,000. Reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s brightly colored Marilyn Monroe portraits, “The Spear” depicts Zuma in a suit and what could be a codpiece accentuating his genitals. Some say it depicts Zuma’s exposed genitals.
The painting had been sold before being defaced.
Other work in the show recalls Soviet-era propaganda posters, and twists political slogans to acerbic effect. The exhibit’s curatorial essay says the work forms “part of a vitriolic and succinct censure of bad governance and are [Murray’s] attempts to humorously expose the paucity of morals and greed within the ruling elite.”
The show opened May 10 and was scheduled to close June 16.