A painting depicting South African President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed has been vandalized, leading to ugly scenes at an art gallery in Johannesburg.
One man painted a red cross across Zuma’s face and penis, while a younger man spread black paint over the image. The younger man was reportedly assaulted by security guards.
The 1.85m painting, entitled The Spear, has bitterly divided South Africans, with the governing African National Congress (ANC) describing it as “rude, disrespectful and racist,” but others defending the artist Brett Murray’s right to freedom of speech.
South Africa’s Eyewitness news identified one of the vandals on Tuesday as a university professor and said he “took a small can of red paint and slowly marked two large ‘X’ symbols over the genitals and the face with a paintbrush.”
“After a while, another man with a small can of black paint smeared the painting using his hands,” it said. “Footage on eNews showed security forcefully cuffing the men with cable ties after the painting had been defaced.”
Andrew Harding, the BBC’s Africa correspondent, was at the Goodman Gallery and tweeted: “Zuma picture smeared with black paint. Man who did it tells me ‘picture was offensive.’ Gallery guard assaults him. 2nd man arrested too.”
“Red and black paint now covers Zuma portrait. Two men responsible now taken away. Gallery closed,” he continued.
The BBC quoted one of the men as saying: “I’m doing this because the painting is disrespectful to President Zuma.”
A private security company was guarding the painting when the incident happened at about 11am. The BBC Web site reported that one man wielding a paint brush was pounced on by guards and headbutted at one point.
Harding tweeted: “Young black man was beaten by guards. Older white man treated much more courteously.”
The suspects were arrested and taken to a nearby police station.
“One man painted a red ‘X’ across Zuma’s face and the second covered the painting with black paint,” a spokesman for the Goodman Gallery said.
Murray said earlier that his work was never meant to hurt anyone, but an “attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition, and within the broader context of South African discourse.”
Earlier, a crowd of ANC supporters gathered near a court in Johannesburg where the party was seeking to have the painting removed. It was decided that a full bench of the high court would hear the case today.
“This is a matter of great national importance,” Judge Kathree Setiloane said.
Meanwhile, as the temperature of the debate continued to soar, Enoch Mthembu, spokesman for the Nazareth Baptist church, commonly known as the Shembe church, called for retribution against Murray.
“This man has insulted the entire nation and he deserves to be stoned to death,” he told the Times of South Africa. “What he did clearly shows his racist upbringing because art does not allow people to insult others. This is an attack on the culture of the majority, the black people of South Africa. With our culture we are allowed to marry many women, and white people must understand that and tolerate our culture as we do theirs. We are not like some of them who prefer prostitutes, as they regard women as sex objects.”
The painting has reportedly been bought by a German collector for about 136,000 rand (US$16,400).