Activists Call for Removal of Work by Murder-Accused Mthethwa From Exhibition About Women

Zwelethu Mthethwa is currently on trial, accused of murdering a sex worker.

SWEAT protesters outside of Zwelthu Mthethwa trial at the Western Cape High Court. Photo courtesy SWEAT.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is protesting the inclusion of a work by internationally renowned photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa in a current exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town while Mthethwa is still on trial for allegedly murdering sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in April 2013.

SWEAT are calling for the work Untitled (from Hope Chest series) (2012), which depicts an unnamed young woman sitting on her chest or dowry, to be taken off view arguing it’s offensive to women for his work to be exhibited while on trial for a violent crime against a woman.

The group exhibition at the South African National Gallery “Our Lady” is meant to explore the empowerment of women.

“The irony of promoting the work of a man accused of murdering a woman as part of an exhibition aimed at empowering women, is not wasted on us,” SWEAT human rights and advocacy manager Ishtar Lakhani told the Citizen.

The adjacent description says “this work explores the relationship between women and the chests which function both as a prestige object and as containers for precious objects” and were traditionally a gift from the woman’s family before she marries.

SWEAT have sent a letter to the gallery stating their case and asking for the work to be taken down and replaced with a painting of the only photograph ever taken of the murdered Kumalo, her police mugshot, by local artist Astrid Warren.

“In their attempt to ‘celebrate empowered female capacity and artworks that counter and contextualize the current status quo’ the National Gallery has in fact served to prioritize the notoriety of the accused rather than respect for the victim, Nokupila Moudy Kumalo,” the letter reads. It goes on to say that the promotion of Mthethwa’s work has not only been in bad taste, but also “deeply offensive.”

The letter also calls out the nature of Mthethwa’s work as objectifying.

In an email to artnet News, the Iziko South African National Gallery explained their position:

[…] Far from promoting Zwelethu Mthetwa’s career the inclusion of the artwork Untitled (from the Hope chest series) (2012) from the New Church Museum Collection has been included in Our Lady as an opportunity for critical engagement. It is contextualized within a theme of the exhibition that looks at portraits of ‘unnamed women’. The inherent brutality of denying a woman the right to her individuality and her name, by varying social constructs and systems has been unpacked with the inclusion of five different artworks made over the course of many years by five different artists.

[…] Not including this work and avoiding the difficult engagement associated with this artwork would have been easy, but it also would have been a betrayal of women everywhere.

The New Church Museum and the Iziko South African National Gallery (Iziko Museums of South Africa) are not prepared to pretend that the abuse of women does not happen, and hence the curators have critically assessed the work in question and welcome dialogue about what is happening within the constructs of the artwork’s ‘frame’, and what is happening outside the ’frame’.

The curators recognize that the artist is currently standing trial for murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, a fact which will heighten the reading and reception of this work in particular. The curators hope the exhibition will open broader dialogue about the pervasive role representations of women can play in determining societal attitudes toward women. Visual and verbal violence towards and about women are often significant markers of prevailing attitudes and ideas surrounding physical violence towards women. We cannot pretend that these problems do not exist or that artists are exempt from sexual violence towards women.

The inclusion of this work is by no means a cheap attempt at publicity. It is a rigorously considered and sincere attempt at transparency and engagement.

[…] We cannot remove the photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa as it would silence a much needed dialogue.

23-year-old Kumalo was a sex worker who was beaten to death between the April 13 and 14 2013 in Woodstock, Cape Town. Mthethwa denies any involvement in the death saying the only thing he can remember from that night is buying 2,016 South African Rand ($862.43) worth of alcohol at the The Corner Lounge in Gugulethu, Cape Town. One witness has died and another has disappeared. His trial continues.

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