The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) has strongly condemned the Iziko South African National Gallery for its decision to include murder-accused Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artwork in a current exhibition.
In a letter addressed to the museum, Human Rights and Advocacy Manager Ishtar Lakhani said: “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.”
Mthethwa, an internationally renowned artist, is currently on trial in the Western Cape High Court for allegedly kicking and beating to death 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in April, 2013.
Kirsty Cockerill, one of the curators of the exhibition entitled “Our Lady”, said the decision to show the work was a carefully considered plan to “open dialogue”.
“Curators are not judges, and museums are not courtrooms.”
The exhibition coincides with the campaign 16 Days of Activism aimed at raising awareness around the high rate of violent crimes against women and children.
Mthethwa’s photograph “Untitled (from Hope Chest series) 2012” depicts an unnamed woman, wearing a blue dress, and sitting atop a large wooden box.
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.
It further says that Mthethwa’s “unnamed subjects read as a typological series, suggestive of an antropological approach to documenting the ‘other’. This type of photographic strategy has received broad criticism by many who view it as a violent approach to portraying the subject as a type rather than an individual”.
Cockerill said that on the one hand the photograph was beautiful, but “on the other hand it’s very uncomfortable”.
She said the curators of the exhibition had considered the fact that Mthethwa is accused of murdering a woman, but felt they should “open up dialogue rather than pretend these problems in society don’t exist”.
“A lot of the art world has veered away from it. But, we feel we cannot be judge or jury.”
But Sweat is now calling for the museum to take down the photograph.
In its letter to the museum, Lakhani wrote: “In their attempt to ‘celebrate empowered female capacity and artworks that counter and contextualise the current status quo’ the National Gallery has in fact served to prioritise the notoriety of the accused rather than respect for the victim, Nokupila Moudy Kumalo”.
It said the promotion of Mthethwa’s work had not only been in bad taste, but had been “deeply offensive”.
It offered a replacement for Mthethwa’s work, a painting of Nokupila (based on the only picture that exists of her, a police mugshot) by local artist Astrid Warren. The painting was commissioned by Sweat.
“If the gallery takes seriously its call to interrupt patriarchy, this painting is a direct manifestation of resistance.”
The trial against Mthethwa drew protests from sex workers at the start of the trial who had hoped to give 23-year-old victim Nokuphila a voice, but their presence has faded as the trial continues to drag on.
On Monday morning, Mthethwa appeared at the Western Cape High Court where his defence was granted an application to reopen its case.
Defence lawyer William Booth had argued that they had received “very important” information since it closed its case earlier this month, and wanted to call prominent psychiatrist, Professor Tuviah Zabow, to testify.
Booth told the court that Mthethwa had maintained during instructions that he could not recall the events of April 13 and 14 2013.
All he could remember was that he was at The Corner Lounge in Gugulethu on the afternoon of April 13 where he paid for R2,016 worth of alcohol.
Booth, after receiving the new information, said he had approached Professor Zabow to assist with a psychological report. Zabow consulted with the accused on November 9.
He has insisted that the new “crucial evidence” would be “in the interests of justice” as “the information that had now been obtained indicated that his (Mthethwa’s) not being able to recall events had in fact occurred on previous occasions”.
Senior State prosecutor Christenus van der Vijver questioned why the defence had waited three years to introduce this new evidence and said Zabow’s evidence would be hearsay. “You cannot have your cake and eat it.”
Judge Patricia Goliath granted the application, however, and the court adjourned until Wednesday when Zabow is expected to testify.
– African News Agency