South Africa


Cape Town artist hopes portrait of dead sex worker will haunt police

Clinton Osbourn created a life size portrait of activist and sex worker Elma Robyn Montsumi. She died in police custody at the Mowbray police station. (Photo: Ashraf Hendricks)

A life-sized portrait of Elma Robyn Montsumi has been placed near the Mowbray police station where she died in custody five months ago. Police says she committed suicide.

First published by GroundUp.

On 9 April, sex worker and activist Elma Robyn Montsumi was arrested on a drug possession charge and held at the Mowbray police station. A few days later she died in custody. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is investigating what is allegedly a suicide by hanging. Sex worker advocacy groups are demanding an update on the investigation.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) has also referred the case to the SA Human Rights Commission.

To raise awareness of Montsumi’s death, artist Clinton Osbourn on Tuesday drew a life size portrait of her in crayon, laminated it and put it on a pole near the Mowbray police station.

Osbourn says he was haunted by Montsumi’s death. “I wanted to make some kind of statement,” he says. “There have been no consequences… Somebody is responsible, but nobody is being held responsible.”

In the drawing, Montsumi is pointing at the police station and has a speech bubble with the words: “My name is Robyn Montsumi. I died in the Mowbray police station on 12 April. My family, my friends and my partner deserve to know the truth about what happened to me. I deserve justice.”

“They [police] need to know that people are watching them,” he said.

Even though Osbourn expects police will take the artwork down, he says he felt a sense of relief once it was up.

Constance Mathe, co-ordinator at the Asijiki Coalition (a group advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work) and a friend of Montsumi says the portrait is a beautiful likeness.

Montsumi she says, was a kind and caring person and a “peacemaker”; one of the founders of SWEAT.

Like many people in her community, Mathe does not believe her death was a suicide. She says Montsumi had been in the police cells “many times”. Since her death, a number of memorials and protests have been held outside the police station. She hopes the picture stays up “as a memory”.

Osbourn, an employee at SWEAT with a history of art activism – including having worked at Young in Prison – has made collaborative comic books and is a member of Kollektivo Illuminoso Fresco, an art collective. DM



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