Last night the hipster paradise of First Thursdays was disrupted by protest action outside the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. The gallery is exhibiting the work of an artist who is currently on trial for murdering a woman. The work is included in an exhibition titled Our Lady, which aims to ‘interrupt the typical traditional moral attitudes and male dominated stereotypes that surrounds imagery of the female form’. It also coincides with the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.
The accused, Zwelethu Mthethwa, is a famous South African artist and photographer who has exhibited both locally and internationally. The work presented at Iziko is on loan from the New Church Museum. In 2013 Mthethwa was accused of beating, kicking and stomping Nokuphila Khumalo to death in Woodstock. The accusation of murder and the ongoing trial have not destroyed his career, as his work is still being exhibited. Art Times actually speculated in 2014 that it could increase the value of his work.
Why are the Iziko National Gallery and the New Church museum giving a public platform to Mthethwa’s work?
In this case the murdered woman, Nokuphila Khumalo, was a 23 year old sex worker. ‘It is important to know that for the most part, you will never get to hear about trials of sex worker murderers, because they hardly ever get to court. The only reason why this case is in the media at all is because the perpetrator is well known,’ said Sally Shackleton of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT). Sex workers often do not report crimes against them because they feel that the police and the justice system are not on their side: today a man was sentenced to only 20 years for the rape and murder of a 23 year old sex worker in Simonstown.
The art world’s silence on Mthethwa is part of a larger silence, a failure to defend the rights of sex workers to be safe from violence in the same way that all citizens have the right to be safe, regardless of their professions. It says that her death actually doesn’t matter; and is validated by how his career continues to flourish.
SWEAT has been raising awareness around the Mthethwa trial since it began. They released a statement on 28 November condemning the decision to include Mthetthwa’s work in the Our Lady exhibition. The Iziko Gallery and the New Church Gallery have defended their decision, saying that it was a conscious choice intended to provoke dialogue and debate. However, until now the photograph has been up without any information contextualising it. SWEAT is trying to change that.
As a result of the intervention by SWEAT, the Iziko National Gallery and the New Church Museum have committed to a public dialogue about the work, changing the description of the photograph, and exhibiting a painting of Nokuphila Khumalo by Astrid warren in an upcoming exhibition. Although these attempts to restore Khumalo’s voice are significant gains, the murder trial remains to be concluded, as new evidence was introduced to court this week Wednesday. It is now more than three years after Khumalo’s death.
On the 7 December, SWEAT will launch the #sayhername campaign. It is a yearlong research project to document the criminal justice response to the murder of sex workers, and also draw attention to the anonymous women whose killers are never found.
An earlier version of this article stated that Mthethwa is represented by the Everard Read gallery. Everard Read does not represent the artist, and we apologise for this mistake.