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A South African TV station showed footage of an unidentified man defacing a controversial portrait of South African President Jacob Zuma at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on Tuesday. (eNews/Associated Press)

Two men wielding cans of red and black paint defaced a painting that draws attention to the South African president's genitals and his reputation for promiscuity, as a judge on Tuesday called for an unusual full-bench hearing of the president's court challenge of the gallery's right to display the work.

"Now it's completely and utterly destroyed," said Iman Rappetti, a reporter for a South African TV 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. Next a man in a hoodie used his hands to rubbed 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.

The painting by Brett Murray entitled 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 party.

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's and President Jacob Zuma's challenge of the gallery's rights to display the painting.

Rappetti said she initially thought the first man was part of a performance art piece, and that staff at the well-known gallery also were slow to react.

The Goodman, which had said in a statement a day earlier that it was stepping up security, refused to comment Tuesday and closed the gallery as reporters and passers-by gathered outside its gate.

The gallery's attorney, Greg Palmer, said they are going to file a charge for malicious damage to property. He said they did not know who the two men were who defaced the painting.

"The gallery has closed and they feel that their security is sufficient," he said.

After the painting was defaced, a third man used spray paint to write the first three letters of the word "respect" on a wall near the gallery's front gate. He was stopped and as he was taken away by police, he shouted that the gallery had shown the president disrespect. He did not identify himself, and it was not clear whether any of the three men involved in Tuesday's incidents at the gallery were linked to one another.

Hearing delayed after vandal attack

Judge Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane had been expected to begin hearing the case against the painting Tuesday. Instead, citing its national interest and the constitutional issues at stake, she said the case would start Thursday before a full bench. Kathree-Setiloane and two other High Court judges, among the most senior in South Africa, will hear the case.

More than 100 pro-Zuma protesters were outside the court Tuesday. Protester 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."

South Africa's constitution protects the right to dignity as well as to freedom of expression. 

'You start proscribing to artists what they can and cannot paint, and then we are lost.'—Sophia Morren, ceramicist

"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 saw the painting defaced after she brought her 17-year-old daughter to see Murray's show Tuesday, 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 acknowledgement in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.

"He's famous for all his women, all his children. I get exactly what the artist is saying," Morren said. "Zuma shouldn't be complaining. Really."

She added 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 a large 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 painting defaced Tuesday is a black, red and yellow acrylic on canvas priced at 120,000 rand (about $15,000 US). In a style 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 observers say it depicts Zuma exposing his genitals.

The painting had been sold before the defacement.

Other work in the show recalls Soviet-era propaganda posters, and twists political slogans to acerbic effect. In an essay accompanying the exhibit, curators say 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.