How do we (not) Speak About Art and Violence?
On October 1st 2019 SWEAT (Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce) publicly called for the withdrawal of an artwork by convicted murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa from the exhibition “All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection” at the UP-Javett Art Centre, University of Pretoria (Javett-UP), curated by Gabi Ngcobo in collaboration with the research team of Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso. Following a series of open letters by SWEAT and Ngcobo with the research team , the curator and her collaborators have now responded with the following statement. Sharing this is an invitation to reflect on and discuss the many complex issues raised by this debate.
18. October 2019
Find here the open letter by SWEAT
Find here the open letter by Gabi Ngcobo and her research team for Educational supplement
On 26 September 2019 we reached out to Lesego Tlhwale, a representative of SWEAT, via a phone call which was meant to initiate a dialogue between us around the exhibition curated by Gabi Ngcobo with a team of researchers working on the exhibition’s Education supplement – Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, and Tšhegofatso Mabaso “All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection” at the Javett Art Centre -University of Pretoria (Javett-UP). we understand, as we have always understood and supported, the work that SWEAT does around their advocacy and especially in the monitoring of the court case that led to the conviction of Zwelethu Mthethwa for the brutal murder of Nokuphila Kumalo in April 2013 and subsequent stance around the showing of Mthethwa’s work.
Following the telephonic conversation with SWEAT clarifying the context under which Mthethwa’s work is shown and analysed, we received via email an open letter signed by SWEAT calling for the removal of the work from the exhibition. This letter was followed up by two letters from us to SWEAT, with the first one contextualising our position and also requesting a discussion, as we understood that the work we do may take different forms but is not dissimilar to each other in our ultimate intentions; resisting all forms of violence against women.
In our second letter to SWEAT, sent out on the 30th September 2019, which was an invitation to an open public dialogue, we stated the following,
“We remember not only his violent acts of brutality, but also his lack of remorse. Showing the work was not a decision we made lightly or without care. When speaking to violences’ existing within the collection, we did not want to preclude the urgent conversation about violent, toxic, masculinist tendencies that this work engenders. Mthethwa’s artwork still remains in major art collections across the world, and as womxn working in the art world we find it important for us to not be silent and ignore the patriarchal cloak protecting this and other similarly violent works, as they continue to grow in “value”, safely out of sight.”
The public response from SWEAT (endorsed by a list of Womxn Rights Organisations in South Africa), dated 1st October, only attaches the first written communication sent on the 28th of September, and does not reference our more recent communication, which expanded our position even further, and also included an amendment, for better clarity, of the wall text.
We, too, are saying #SayHerName.
We too, are screaming #StopCelebratingZwelethuMthethwa.
In essence, we are in agreement with SWEAT. We also agree with the statement below, written by Lesego Tlhwale in an op-ed (dated 03 October),
“the arts industry has historically struggled to regulate and hold accountable artists who commit violence against womxn and act in ways which are socially reprehensible. The public admiration that they enjoy primarily because of their art often saves them from the consequences of their actions because 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”.
A man who was in our midst for many years violently took Kumalo’s life. 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. We do not separate the work from its maker, in fact we perform a more complicated and uncomfortable gesture that reveals the perpetrator within a particular economy and institution in order to remove the responsibility of violence from the victim and centre it back on the perpetrator. If all conversations around violence continue to centre on the victim, perpetrators will continue to thrive, and hashtag activism and callout culture cannot be the only recourse; our collective failures to speak about the perpetrators allows for other insidious abuses to be meted out on resisting bodies.
The exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection holds accountable problematic historical narratives that affect us in the present; the violences that manifest through works such as Mthethwa’s and many others. In our letter sent to SWEAT on the 30th of September, before their move to mobilise through a petition that deliberately miscommunicated our intentions, we had also very clearly stressed that there is nothing celebratory about the exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection, whose curatorial strategy is not one that endorses but one that rather seeks to reveal the hypocrisy that we often encounter in our field. The exhibition is a protest and critically exposes varying forms of violence that play themselves out through art forms and art spaces; violences that are often left unexposed and unchallenged, violences that we as black women suffer from the most. The inclusion of the work of Mthethwa within this discursive framework should not overshadow the very reason the exhibition as protest has mobilised. And while no protest is perfect, other languages and models of protest, which challenge expectations should not simply be dismissed because they are unfamiliar.
The continuous presentation of an incomplete title of the exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection on public platforms leaves out “in the Javett Art Collection” and reads as “All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence”. This takes away the function of our interrogation of a collection, and instead presents an open question around innocence. Despite all our efforts to communicate, a section of a sentence taken from the initial wall text has been used as a way to imply that the point of the exhibition is to exonerate the perpetrator. We refuse to be painted as uninformed advocates of “free speech”, and at no point did we make claims that our work was being “censored”. We also do not present the work as carrying any “merit or historical relevance”, as has been stated through statements by SWEAT. SWEAT’s decision to deliberately peddle the unamended text in order to propel their position negates the critique that underpins the exhibition, that no artwork is innocent, and that the artist is not separate from the work, thereby closing up other possible avenues for discussing the scourge of women abuse. This makes it clear to us that SWEAT is interested only in a campaign to manipulate and emotionally overwhelm the public, excluding the facts and details of the exhibition that would complicate their stance, and not allow for other forms of nuanced conversation that set out to disentangle the cultural fascination with female victimhood from the fight against misogyny. We do not judge the methodologies that SWEAT chooses to employ also we would not presume to tell them how to perform their activism, especially since their work has the same interests as ours, albeit through different models.
Below is the wall text in the exhibition, which was amended to create more clarity, following my initial discussions with SWEAT. In it, we clearly state that Mthethwa is a murderer, and at no point is his creative practice sanctified:
Zwelethu Mthethwa’s “The Wedding Party” (1996) is the only work in this exhibition depicting a scene between two intimate partners, a man and a woman, on their wedding day. The pastel drawing portrays a close-up scene from the wedding party, as the title indicates. A wedding cake is at the center of the drawing and is flanked by three figures; the wedding couple and a man who is shaking the groom’s hand in a congratulatory gesture. The woman is not part of this conversation; she unresponsively takes a sip from her soft drink. What becomes clear is that the position or role of the woman remains one that is passive. 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.
In 2017 Mthethwa was found guilty for the brutal murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo. Despite hard evidence proving otherwise, Mthethwa maintained his innocence by stating he did not remember his deeds. He is currently serving 18 years at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
If showing this text next to the work “continues his legacy whilst introducing him to a new audience” as SWEAT maintains, then we choose to trust that the audience’s thinking capacities will enable them to understand what is being communicated clearly in the wall text within the context of the whole exhibition, as well as through the public programme and educational supplement that form part of the exhibition. And for those who will not access the exhibition and public programme, our position on the work reveals the societally operative double standard of patriarchy and misogyny in the ruse of culture and custom that is embedded in Mthethwa’s work. This seemingly innocuous painting of a wedding becomes the gesture through which societally sanctioned practices , traditions, or customs that potentially perpetuate the oppression of girls and women become enacted.
In this exhibition we have further exposed the manner in which auction houses are also responsible for violent historical erasures in the name of “profits”. By revealing the original titles that have been changed in order to hide the violence that has happened and continues to manifest in this country. We question the “innocence” that these changed titles communicate too. Irma Stern is a documented racist, yet 8 out of 10 records set at auctions for SA modernist art are held by her. In other works in the Javett Art Collection, we unpack intersections between race, gender, and class through the presence of paintings where black women appear as subjects with no agency, labouring as they still do under a white capitalist system.
In life, Nokuphila Kumalo was a young black woman with agency, struggling to economically exist in a system built to fail her; no where does our framing negate the agentic potential of her life in-fact the themes running through the exhibition are connected as they make visible how systems made to fail black women have, throughout history, been turned into pretty pictures circulating in the art market. This is a context that leaves no room for the work and its maker to remain unquestioned.
We wish to engage in conversations that help us to untangle ourselves from the systemic and brutal violences that continue to affect our lives without being choked by the very things we all agree have no place in our society. We are all fighting towards the same cause, and the fact that we are employing different mediums, in different spaces, should not be any reason for our labour to be dismissed or overlooked. Nokuphila’s memory will forever be engraved in our minds, and we understand that the pain of loss felt by Nokuphila’s family, peers, and community is one that we cannot claim as our own. What we are saying is that Mthethwa is not the only one, as there are many, like him, who still walk amongst us, freely, violently, and remain celebrated by the art world. Who is coming for them? We do not want to wait for another victim, another public beating of a womxn by an artist, another violent death of a womxn, at the hands of a “celebrated artist” or any other perpetrator. We cannot continue to wait in silence, when the evidence of both historical as well as present violence is all around us.
We certainly cannot be charged with the responsibility of the future actions of others in relation to how Mthethwa’s work survives our interrogation of it.
The work we are doing in actively uncloaking the inherent toxicity, misogyny, and violence against women within Mthethwa’s “art” leads us to question whether it should even be in circulation. Our point is that it should NOT be celebrated. But when encountering its existence in a now public collection, we believe that what it represents, at all levels, should be critically interrogated rather than – perhaps less uncomfortably for some – rationalised or concealed. This, then, is not a promotion of the work, but a deliberate, searing unmasking of it.
From the point of view of our practice, our proposition would be to examine where most triggers are likely to appear, publicly. Should we not be running a campaign to remove all existing images of Mthethwa’s work online? Should we not be removing all celebratory texts existing around his artistic practice? These are the spaces where he is mostly circulated, most visible, and easily triggering to every one of us who wishes to de-centre his celebrity and focus on his misogyny. We need to ask ourselves, what happens to the work once it is down from the walls of an exhibition that heavily critiques it? Does the work survive this critique, only to return back into circulation in the Art market?
We are asking ourselves what justice looks like, and we do so understanding that the notion of justice is one that is complex, especially when viewed from different vantage points, even when interrogating the same problem. It was not an easy decision to put the work up, and to take it down would mean to take down the entire exhibition, as no work placed in the exhibition is “innocent” and we cannot ignore this particular violence when we speak of other violences that are carried in works within the collection. Interrogating the things that make us live in fear is a lifetime’s work, and the time, as we have seen in recent public outrages against gender-based violence, is always ripe to point out and fight against the things that keep us oppressed. This is one of the ways we are insisting on our humanity and our right to freedom.
The circulation of a narrative that All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection had “good intentions” that ‘failed’; that there was a lack of judgement; and that the “timing” is not right, is one that assumes a kind of consensus based on gendered and racial affinity. Violence in South Africa is a scourge and it disproportionately affects black women; and while black women’s interests are varied and not uniform, the instrumentalisation of the separate interests of black women by a white woman, who is at the centre of formulating and circulating this narrative, becomes starkly apparent in the current unfolding of this present saga where virtue and self-interest are not easily parsed. It is disappointingly not surprising that a white woman artist and her armchair activism do not seem to understand the position of the curators, and violently places them in opposition to the marginal position of Kumalo, her family, and SWEAT. This convenient “activism” undermines the complexity of black women’s lives, as it undermines, also, the possibilities for black women like ourselves to imagine and employ more complex and nuanced critical strategies beyond the trap of perpetuating polarising and divisive rhetoric. Her “solidarity” is not innocent.
As practitioners in our field, we have over many years resisted and claimed our urgencies through our critical practices. We will continue to speak and act from our perspectives, informed by our own lived experiences. It is the very people who have benefitted from the colonial system and profited through the white capitalist system that want to insist that our voices are not ours but belong to the very system we are critiquing. They insist that we cannot think for ourselves but are mere bodies wearing white people’s heads. The attempt is again being made to whitewash us out of history and the present so that we may not dare to appear in the future we dream for ourselves.
We wish for this very important discussion not to be hijacked by those who only have their own best interests at heart, who have always been riding on the backs of black bodies, whitewashing our narratives to make them appear as theirs whilst they bask in the limelight of their perceived innocence. We refuse for our pain to be mediated by the voices of those who “tipp-ex” the narratives of our struggles, centring their own bodies as “extras” in our lived everyday confusions.
We understand the centring of victims, and have done so in the past, in other contexts. Our appeal to the public is for them to begin understanding that our work is activism too, and ours plays out in different ways, in completely different spaces.
– Gabi Ngcobo (curator) with Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso (research team for Educational supplement).
On 11th October, SWEAT published another statement in which the group also refers to this article.