AS threats against the Goodman Gallery increased yesterday, the controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed was relocated to an unknown safe location.
The Spear, by Cape Town artist Brett Murray, was moved after two men had defaced it with red and black paint.
A third person’s attempt to graffiti the word "respect” on the gallery’s wall was derailed.
Meanwhile, lawyers acting for Murray will apply for an interdict to force the country’s biggest church – the Nazareth Baptist (Shembe) Church – and its spokesman, Enoch Mthembu, to stop calling for the artist to be stoned to death.
The owner of the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, Liza Essers, said: "The extent of the rage has astonished me and upset me very much.
"I never imagined that this debate would transform into harmful physical action.”
The Young Communist League, which is planning a march to the gallery tomorrow, said the men who had defaced the painting should be given awards for their bravery.
Cosatu, which has been vocal in the controversy, said it sympathised with the men and understood their anger.
The gallery closed temporarily yesterday afternoon amid fears for the safety of staff and visitors – just hours before the Film and Publication Board convened last night to decide whether to classify The Spear as pornography.
Earlier yesterday, the Johannesburg High Court ruled that a full bench of judges would hear the application brought by Zuma, his children and the ANC to have the painting permanently removed from the public domain.
The Film and Publication Board convened hastily last night after receiving complaints that the artwork was "sexually explicit” and widely circulated on social networks to which children had access.
One of the complainants, Zipho Mavimbela, said the painting was "extremely inappropriate” as it exposed her children, aged 14 and eight, to material of a sexual nature.
Mavimbela said it was circulating on social networks, including Facebook and BlackBerry’s instant messaging – to which her children had access – and was completely inappropriate.
If The Spear is classified as pornography by the board, it will be allowed to be exhibited only in adult shops.
Film and Publication Board spokesman Mdlimandlela Ndamase said the matter was viewed as urgent and a decision could be taken by late last night or this morning.
While the complaints to the board centred on pornographic explicitness, Zuma said in his court affidavit that The Spear not only offended him, but violated his dignity.
City Press – which has refused to remove a picture of the painting from its website – said Zuma’s attempt to remove the artwork was "unprecedented and extraordinary”.
In his affidavit, Zuma mentioned the hurt and offence he had felt when he first saw the painting, saying he had been "shocked, and felt offended and violated”. "It is clear from the allegations set out in this paragraph that the antipathy by some people towards me, such as the [City Press], has driven them to the belief that I am not worthy of any respect and that I should, therefore, be stripped of all dignity,” his affidavit said.
Zuma said, however, that not all of Murray’s art was objectionable.
"I agree that he has produced commendable works in challenging the status quo during apartheid and further that he must continue to offer critical commentary through his work in the era of constitutional democracy.
"My contention is that artists and social commentators must draw the line between fair and justifiable comment and offensive commentary that infringes on a person’s inherent right to dignity,” he said.
Murray’s lawyer, Pamela Stein, said yesterday: "At this point, Brett Murray is feeling completely overwhelmed.” Zuma’s application will be heard at 10am tomorrow.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the depiction of the president was an insult to all South Africans and the people of Africa.
He said the ANC had been inundated with calls from dignitaries from Africa and abroad about the "vulgar painting”.
The ANC was not opposed to freedom of expression but, Mthembu said, a critical issue the court would have to deal with was: "Is our democracy denigrating the culture of the people of this country? Should it denigrate the rights that are contained in our constitution?
"We have fought for freedom of expression, we fought for freedom of human dignity. The question is: do we elevate the right of expression to that of human dignity?”
The two men who allegedly defaced the painting were given R1000 bail each and will appear in the Hillbrow Magistrate’s Court today charged with malicious damage to property.
Additional reporting by Amukelani Chauke and Poppy Louw