JOHANNESBURG (AP).- Two men wielding cans of red and black paint entered a Johannesburg gallery on Tuesday and defaced a painting that draws attention to the South African president's genitals and his reputation for promiscuity, witnesses said.
"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 (miles) 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.
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. Kathree-Setiloane and two other High Court judges, among the most senior in South Africa, will hear the case.
Nearly one hundred pro-Zuma protesters were outside the court.
Also Tuesday, Zuma's children asked to participate on the side of their father. Murray, the artist who painted the portrait, asked to participate alongside the Goodman. Murray has refused to comment on the controversy the show has sparked.
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). 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.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.