A SWEAT protester outside Iziko South African National Gallery (photo via SWEAT/Facebook)

The display of an artwork by photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa — who is currently on trial for the murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo — has incited controversy at a South African museum. Following a protest by the group Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the Iziko South African National Gallery is updating the wall text accompanying the photograph and will hold a public discussion about the exhibition on December 15.

Kumalo was killed in April 2013, when a man beat her to death in the street in a suburb of Cape Town. The incident was caught on closed-circuit camera. Mthethwa was charged with the crime in August of that year, and after two years of postponements, the trial began in June 2015, only to face further setbacks and delays. Mthethwa has maintained his innocence all along and says he does not remember what happened that night. He has not testified in the trial, which is ongoing.

In the meantime, in early November, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town opened an exhibition titled Our Lady. Featuring works in the collections of that institution and the New Church Museum, the show was “designed to interrupt the typical traditional moral attitudes and male dominated stereotypes that surrounds imagery of the female form,” according to a press release. “The works celebrate empowered female capacity that counter and contextualise the current status quo.” A piece from Mthethwa’s Hope Chest series, which consists of photographs of South African women with the chests given to them by their families when they got married, was included.


A photo posted by Kieran McGregor (@kieran_mcgregor) on

Iziko South African National Gallery

When SWEAT got word of this, the organization published an open letter to the museum on its Facebook page. “In the light of Mthethwa’s (‘the accused’) ongoing murder trial for allegedly beating a sex worker to death, we feel the promotion of his work is not only in bad taste but deeply offensive,” the group wrote. “The irony of promoting the work of a man accused murdering women as part of an exhibition aimed at empowering women, is not wasted on us.” SWEAT called on the National Gallery to remove Mthethwa’s work.

Iziko Museums of South Africa — the flagship institution that runs 11 museums, including the National Gallery — and the New Church Museum responded by issuing a joint statement that said Mthethwa’s piece had been included in Our Lady purposefully, “as an opportunity for critical engagement.” The statement continued:

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. Museums are places where we should feel the freedom and safety to have difficult conversations. We cannot remove the photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa as it would silence a much needed dialogue.

In the statement, Iziko and New Church made the case that Mthethwa’s artwork “is contextualised within a theme of the exhibition that looks at portraits of ‘unnamed women.’” They argued that this section of the show was devoted to unpacking “the inherent brutality of denying a woman the right to her individuality and her name, by varying social constructs and systems.” But SWEAT countered that by failing to mention the accusation against Mthethwa, the wall text did not provide complete context. “We are questioning this commitment [to dialogue] as putting up a painting without the transparency of contextualising the artwork does not create an ‘open dialogue,’” the group’s advocacy manager, Ishtar Lakhani, told the Mail & Guardian.

It wasn’t only SWEAT that called into question the effectiveness Iziko’s approach. In a piece for ArtThrob, artist and critic Chad Rossouw wrote:

I’m going to take the context as the position, elaborated in the statement as well as on the wall text in the museum, that ‘Our Lady’ is motivated by challenging and critically engaging with patriarchy in representations of women.  I’m not sure it is particularly well articulated in the exhibition: there seem to be no disruptions, and the counternarratives appear weak and underthought.

He went on to point out that the Mthethwa piece comes from the New Church Museum, which is in fact a private collection. “We need to ask, when all the chips have fallen, who benefits?” he wrote.

Protesters outside Iziko South African National Gallery

It didn’t take long for Iziko to address SWEAT’s concerns. On December 1, the two organizations, along with the New Church Museum, released a new joint statement indicating that they had met and agreed upon a course of action. SWEAT and Iziko would write a new wall text that would be placed alongside Mthethwa’s piece, to provide further context; a portrait of Kumalo, commissioned by SWEAT and painted by Astrid Warren, would be shown in an upcoming exhibition titled At Face Value; SWEAT would perform “a creative direct action” outside the museum later that day (December 1); and the National Gallery would host a public dialogue about the issue (the event taking place on December 15). A Facebook live video of the December 1 action shows about 20 people singing and chanting calmly on the steps leading up to the museum; they wear orange and black SWEAT T-shirts — some have masks on their faces as well — and hold signs with information about killed sex workers. “My name was Nokuphila Kumalo,” reads one. “I was a sex worker. I was 23 years old. I was found beaten to death. Zwelethu Mthethwa is accused of my murder.”

Although Kumalo’s mother says she’s given up on the trial, it might finally be coming to a conclusion. The defense was allowed to reopen its case last week, in the process introducing testimony from a psychologist who examined Mthethwa and attempting to establish “a pattern of [the artist] being driven home in his car after a night of heavy drinking at upmarket clubs,” according to News24. The defense’s case has now been closed once more, and closing arguments from both sides are expected tomorrow.

Update, 12/14: According to eNCA, closing arguments in Mthethwa’s trial were made today. Judge Patricia Goliath of the Western Cape High Court said she will deliver a verdict on March 9, 2017.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...