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Vandals deface controversial painting of South African president

May 22, 2012 |  7:28 am

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — "The Spear," a controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma that has divided South Africa and ignited a debate on artistic freedom, was defaced by vandals Tuesday in Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery.

Two men smeared paint on the work by Cape Town artist Brett Murray, which depicted Zuma posed like Soviet leader V.I. Lenin, with his pants unzipped and genitals exposed.

The attack on the painting came as Zuma and the ruling African National Congress were suing the gallery to force it to remove the painting, as well as the newspaper City Press to make it remove a picture of the work from its website. The gallery, artist and newspaper were to oppose the action in court on Thursday.

The case is to be heard by a full bench of the high court.

Despite searches of people entering the gallery and the presence of security guards, two men managed to smuggle small cans of paint into the exhibit and attack the work. One, a white man, painted a red cross across Zuma's genitals and a second cross across his face, while a local television station e-News filmed him. A second man, who was black, then thoroughly smeared the work with black paint.

A security guard threw the black man to the floor. Both men were arrested.

The work was part of an exhibition "Hail to the Thief II" commenting on the alleged corruption of the ruling African National Congress and its socialist origins. Zuma filed an affidavit with the court saying that he was deeply hurt and offended by the painting. Murray filed an affidavit that he didn't intend to hurt anyone's dignity.

Murray called the work "an attempt at humorous satire of political power and patriarchy within the context of other artworks in the exhibition".

The painting ignited a storm in South Africa, with the ANC and its political allies calling the painting racist while artists and the Freedom of Expression Institute decried the ruling party's efforts to suppress the work.

The controversy also exposed the country's enduring racial divide, with many black people deeply uncomfortable about the confrontational portrait of the president, while many whites were disturbed by ANC's efforts to curb artistic freedom. It follows a recent race controversy after a white model used offensive language tweeting about a black man in a supermarket, quickly followed by a young black actress tweeting that she wished all whites had been shot.

Tuesday's attack on the painting was cheered by many South Africans on the social networking site Twitter. But some saw the attack as sending an ominous message about South African freedom and tolerance.

"There'll be a temptation to dismiss this as funny. It is not. It is profound. South Africa's tolerance was tested and we failed," wrote a columnist with Business Day, Gareth van Onselen, on Twitter.

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— Robyn Dixon

Video: South African e-News television footage on YouTube of vandals defacing controversial portrait of Jacob Zuma. Credit: YouTube

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