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Photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa Charged with Murder, Claims Innocence

Zwelethu Mthethwa (via TK)
Zwelethu Mthethwa (via southafricanartists.com)

Prominent South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa has been accused of murdering a woman in a suburb of Cape Town and will go on trial starting on Monday. He denies the charge.

The incident in question took place in April, when a man hit and kicked a woman to death on a street in Woodstock. Closed-circuit cameras captured the footage and led police to identify the man as Mthethwa. The victim, 23 years old, was named Nokuphila Kumalo and may have been a sex worker. Police say they also have an eyewitness who identified Mthethwa, claiming that he stopped his car, approached Kumalo, and began hitting her. Once she fell to the ground, he kicked her. She died there.

The murder took place on April 13; Mthethwa was arrested May 5 and, in court the following day, released on a bail of 100,000 rand (roughly $9,770). The story wasn’t reported in the news until over a month later, in mid June, when Afrikaans-language paper Die Burger ran a short item, which sparked other reports, including two in the English-language City Press. Neither contains a statement from Mthethwa himself, but the first story quotes Mark Read, director of the Everard Read Gallery, which represents Mthethwa in Johannesburg, saying that the artist “was keen to say that it will all be sorted out.” A follow-up piece three days later reports:

Mthethwa’s affadavit states he co-operated with police and turned himself over to them on his return to the country. He said under oath he is innocent of any charges against him.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the "Sugar Cane" series) (2007), c-print (photo by Flickr user cliff1066)
Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from the “Sugar Cane” series) (2007), c-print (photo by Flickr user cliff1066)

In advance of next week’s trial, the Mail & Guardian has a long piece about the case — although in the end, likely because of the lack of information, it’s more about Mthethwa. The article traces the artist’s career trajectory, from making pastels early on that were popular locally to the powerful color photographs for which he’s become internationally known. Writer Sean O’Toole questions the incredulous and at times dismissive reaction of the art world to the story, and astutely points out the contrast between Mthethwa’s photos, which often celebrate lower- and working-class South Africans, and the crime of which he’s accused. O’Toole writes:

The dignity Mthethwa’s photos lend to his often impoverished subjects underscores the shock of the murder charge. This charge, whether substantiated or not, unavoidably focuses attention on the artist, a reserved and principled man who withdrew from the 2011 Venice Biennale because of concerns about financial irregularities.

Mthethwa has had solo exhibitions at numerous institutions, including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and his work has been shown at the International Center of Photography, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Venice and São Paulo biennials, among other places. He’s represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery, whom we contacted for comment on this story. We hadn’t received a response at the time of publication.

h/t @jmcolberg, via PDN Pulse

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