KAYLA THOMAS AND KRISTIN DE DECKER
On 24 September the Javett Art Centre (Javett-UP) opened its doors to the public but was soon met with backlash regarding the inclusion of a painting by artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, who was convicted of the murder of sex worker, Nokuphila Kumalo, in 2013. The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) called for the removal of the painting that forms part of the All in Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Family Collection at Javett- UP. SWEAT issued an open letter to the curators of the collection requesting that Javett-UP remove Mthethwa’s art, writing that the inclusion of the work serves to “glorify and celebrate a convicted murderer rather than respect Nokuphila”.
Mthethwa was sentenced to 18 years and is currently serving his sentence at Pollsmoor Prison. His conviction followed the court’s determination that CCTV footage that captured his murder of Kumalo conclusively proved Mthethwa’s guilt. Mthethwa claimed innocence throughout his trial and still maintains his innocence following his conviction – which is explained in a caption that accompanies the display of his work. SWEAT, in the open letter to Javett-UP, states that the caption’s inclusion of Mthethwa’s innocence claim “is a violent erasure of his deeds and speaks to a lack of very basic humanity and decency”.
The collection’s curator, Gabi Ngcobo, and researchers Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso, responded to SWEAT’s letter and defended the inclusion of the work. They explained that “there is nothing celebratory about the exhibition[ …] our curatorial strategy is not one that endorses or decorates but one that rather seeks to reveal the hypocrisy that we often encounter in our field.” The response also commented that “misogyny that is often hidden in art spaces and has long affected womxn personally, professionally and violently needs to be discussed openly with different constituencies of society”, reinforcing their stance that the artwork is a method of promoting such engagement. They further opined that his artwork “stands as another piece of evidence that exposes his misogyny and toxicity” and that “[they] employ it as a tool to encourage discussion”. Additionally, they emphasised that not showing the artwork would “preclude any conversation about violent, toxic, masculinist tendencies that the work might engender”. They then expressed that “it is [their] duty too, as black womxn in art spaces, to create platforms where these forms of violence can be exposed, discouraged or criminalised”.
A statement by Womxn’s Rights NGOs countered the above response. Here they adamantly stated that the artwork needs to be removed, despite the curator and researchers’ reasons presented for Mthethwa’s work being displayed. They also expressed that “the argument that the artwork has to be displayed for a conversation to happen is disingenuous. A conversation is still possible even when there is no artwork.” The fact that Nokuphila Kumalo’s family and community were not consulted was another issue highlighted, as well as the fact that other galleries had complied with removing Mthethwa’s other works. The Womxn’s Rights NGOs also noted that they acknowledge “implications for people who acquire, exhibit or curate artworks and others whose livelihoods are impacted by the decision” to take the art down. In contrast, they suggested that no pressing social loss would be incurred by the removal of the artwork. They also revealed the difficulty women accusing artists face, as it is “hard to convince an adoring public that a person who is so talented and capable of producing beautiful works of art is also capable of the violence that he has been accused of”. This “culture of impunity” is exacerbated by separating the art from the artist. As Mthethwa has already been convicted of murder, they think that the “severity of the offence […] merits the removal of the artwork”. Mthethwa’s “refus[al] to take responsibility for his actions or show remorse” further endorses this discussion. The Womxn’s Rights NGOs assert that “this request is an appeal to the curators, the gallery and the university to be a part of this growing movement that acts out of conscience, not fear of legal sanctions.”
Photo: Stephanie Cookson