A SWEAT activist holding a poster memorializing Nokuphila Kumalo. Candice Breitz asked that the poster be hung at the Javett to replace her withdrawn artwork. (photo by Sydelle Willow Smith, courtesy of SWEAT)

Nearly three years ago, painter-photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa was found guilty of murder after a long, laborious trial. But the conversation about Mthethwa’s crime was reignited last month when a new Cape Town museum, University of Pretoria’s Javett Art Center, featured the artist in an inaugural exhibition entitled All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence. The exhibition, curated by Gabi Ngcobo, was designed, according to the Javett’s website, to “uncover themes ranging from education, culture, architecture, the natural environment, representation, beauty, the land, religion and politics, to name just a few.” 

Mthethwa, a high-profile South African artist, has since been serving an 18-year prison sentence for beating Nokuphila Kumalo, a 23-year-old sex worker, to a violent death in a suburb of Cape Town. The act was captured on pixelated CCTV footage, which was presented at Mthethwa’s trial — and largely sealed his conviction. According to local reports, many sex workers and advocates were present in the public gallery throughout Mthethwa’s four-year trial; several rose and applauded when the judge delivered her ruling. 

After Mthethwa’s conviction (though he has maintained his innocence), members of SWEAT (the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and other activists urged galleries and museums to pull Mthethwa’s work from their walls. (Spectators in the art world were struck by Mthethwa’s refusal to testify in court and his perceived lack of remorse; he notably has said the entire evening has been wiped from his memory.)

In 2017, while Mthethwa was still on trial, the Iziko South African National Gallery included one of his untitled photographs (2012) in an exhibition that was ironically titled, Our Lady. “The Wedding Party” marks the first public reappearance of Mthethwa’s work since his 2017 conviction. Some fear that Javett, a newly-opened institution, has tacitly given auction houses, galleries, and museums permission to forget Mthethwa’s dark personal history — and disseminate his work.

Once news surfaced of the artist’s presence in Politics of Innocence, SWEAT published an open letter and circulated a petition online, calling for the Javett Art Center to remove Mthethwa’s work, “The Wedding Party,” a 1996 pastel drawing. As of Monday, October 7, the petition has over 900 signatures.

“The irony of promoting the work of a man convicted of murdering a woman as part of an exhibition in the backdrop of the gender-based violence and femicide epidemic in South Africa is a complete disregard of the agony and trauma this and all other acts of violence against womxn cause,” SWEAT’s letter reads. “This is in actual fact, a slap in the face of womxn who have been killed by men like Zwelethu Mthethwa, who in turns continue to be celebrated by the supremacist capitalist patriarchal world.”

In a public gesture of solidarity, South African artist Candice Breitz asked that her video installation “Profile” (2017) — which was on view at a separate Javett exhibition, 101 Collecting Conversations: Signature Works of a Century — be powered off. 

“Ngcobo has effectively recuperated the work of Mthethwa for the Javett Foundation and offered a license for others who are invested in his work to bring it back into circulation and speculation … there will surely be a plethora of less well-intended collectors and speculators who will see fit to do the same,” Breitz wrote on Facebook. 

Breitz also notes that the Javett Center shares in a legacy of powerful capital in South Africa’s art world. She requested her work at the art center be replaced with a poster that includes the phrase,  #SayHerName — signifying the activist movement to spotlight brutal acts of violence against Black women and girls. The Javett Center did unplug “Profile,” but declined to feature a #SayHerName poster in its place.  

Prominent reproductive rights activist Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng and Kenyan poet and human rights activist Shailja Patel have both publicly criticized the Javett Art Center on social media for its decision to display Mthethwa’s work.

Amid the controversy and SWEAT’s letter, Ngcobo and her research team wrote a direct response on the Javett’s website: “Our intention with showing Mthethwa’s work is with the sole purpose of presenting it as ‘evidence’ that highlights how misogyny has played out in his work over time. We can see through his work, the perpetuation of violence against women. We therefore elected to utilise his work to present a psycho-social analysis that exposes his violent actions as not emerging out of the blue.” 

Underneath Mthethwa’s work, a placard reads, in part: “The patriarchal gesture and the performance of masculinity present her as peripheral to the event. Through the window we see a white flag installed on top of a roof of a house, indicating, according to Zulu custom, that a man has ‘won’ the affections of a woman … Despite hard evidence proving otherwise, Mthethwa maintained his innocence by stating he did not remember his deeds.” 

The card (which was revised and expanded after SWEAT circulated its petition) continues, noting that the matrimonial scene between a man and a woman excludes the female, who sips her soft drink passively while her husband enjoys an animated conversation.  The Javett Center has said it will not remove Mthethwa’s painting from its exhibition.

Ngcobo also penned a lengthy op-ed on Monday, outlining her efforts to compromise with SWEAT and the thematic importance of Mthethwa’s work. The painting exists as a reminder of the violence against women that often goes unaddressed, the piece contends. “We, too, are saying #SayHerName…In essence, we are in agreement with SWEAT … A man who was in our midst for many years violently took Kumalo’s life,” the piece continues. “We cannot forget what he did, just because he is serving time. We employ the reading of his work as a critical strategy not an invitation to those who may still believe he should be celebrated. We chose to remember his and other violences by pointing at our own industry’s inability to address things that should never be tolerated.” 

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