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The controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s painting “The Spear”, part of his exhibition Hail to the Thief II at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, reached fever pitch yesterday when the artwork was defaced by two men. The painting has elicited outrage from the African National Congress (ANC) for its depiction of South African President Jacob Zuma’s genitals. In keeping with Murray’s long-standing penchant for satire, the work references a famous poster of Vladimir Lenin, but inside Lenin’s billowing coat President Zuma stands clothed but with his genitals exposed.

In a strange turn of events, threats of protest marches and court action from the ANC were eclipsed in the news when two men, aged 58 and 25, entered the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday morning and, seemingly casually, defaced “The Spear” with red and black paint. Clear video footage of the act recorded by the eNews channel shows the older perpetrator, a white male, painting red crosses over Zuma’s face and genitals, following which the younger, a black male, smeared black paint over the Zuma figure’s torso and face.

The perpetrators were arrested and charged, and eventually released from the Rosebank Police Station in Johannesburg late last night, under peculiar circumstances. The perpetrators, Bryan LaGrange (58) and Louis Makobela (25), claimed not to know one another prior to the vandalism incident — according to Makobela’s lawyer, Krish Naidoo (who has strong connections to the ANC), it was an “uncanny coincidence” that the two arrived at the Goodman Gallery at precisely the same time, with the same action in mind. Despite this claim, the video footage of the painting shows a level of calm cooperation between the two vandals that would seem unlikely between two strangers whose efforts had not been coordinated. The well-timed presence of eNews’s cameraman, also claimed to be a coincidence, has raised suspicion as well.

Other suspicious circumstances around the arrest of La Grange and Makobela include efforts by the police to deceive journalists who had gathered around the police station last night, and to co-opt La Grange’s son, who was also present at the station, into helping the police to rid the scene of journalists. LaGrange’s son was also addressed by an unidentified man who arrived in a black Golf GTI, suspected by journalists to be associated with a crime intelligence service. This man subsequently followed La Grange’s son when he left the police station at approximately 11pm.

Representatives from the ANC and the Goodman Gallery will meet in court on Thursday for a hearing on the ANC’s appeal for the removal of the painting from the gallery, despite its defacement. ANC supporters have been encouraged to gather outside the Johannesburg High Court on Thursday to show their support for President Zuma, who is also the president of the ruling party. After news broke of the ANC’s intention to remove the work from public display, the City Press published an image of the piece. Subsequently, the ANC has expressed an intention to sue both the City Press and the Goodman Gallery. Director of the Goodman Gallery, Liza Essers, has refused to remove the work from the gallery on grounds that the ANC’s request amounts to the suppression of freedom of expression.

The Goodman Gallery announced today that the painting has been removed from the gallery’s premises and the gallery is closed to the public until further notice, following threats of further vandalism and violence.

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