The debates around Zwelethu Mthethwa’s art, considering his murdering of a sex worker, Nokuphila Kumalo, are nothing new. They have been resurrected more recently by the inclusion of his artwork in the exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection, curated by Gabi Ngcobo, Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso.
After calls to remove the artwork by SWEAT, an organisation that champions the rights of sex workers with the ultimate goal of advancing the decriminalisation of the profession, the curators responded to the calls with a letter I feel has repercussions for our collective and individual culpability and complicity in perpetuating gender-based violence.
We live in a country where black womxn are murdered daily. The average rate of femicide is five times higher than the global average. We live in a country where black womxn, when they are killed, have little recourse to justice. It is no small thing that Zwelethu Mthethwa was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the crime.
I do fear however, that because we deem justice to be the preserve of juridical and legislative bodies – judges, courts, police stations, community policing forums – the abiding sentiment is that for Nokuphila Kumalo, justice has been served.
Justice exists outside and beyond these institutions. Justice exists outside of the operational and discursive space of the legal and policing systems and is inextricably linked to notions of value and dignity. It finds expression in the afterlife of court rulings. It is a humble fire fed by the ways we remain sensitive or become insensitive to victims. The ways we either mourn victims or choose to disremember them determines whether this fire flourishes or subsides. I cannot help but wonder if Nokuphila Kumalo has been apportioned her full measure of justice.
The title of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, This Mournable Body, explains the mournability of bodies. I ready mournability, selfishly, from its grammatic root of mourning. “Mourning” as grieving over the death of a loved one, as opposed to the synonymic root of lamenting, as in “lamenting/mourning a particular state of affairs”. I ask myself and anyone who cares to answer, questions around which bodies are mourned, which bodies are mournable, how do we mourn bodies?
In light of the Javett Art Centre saga I ask: “Does the inclusion of Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artwork in the exhibition, aid us in our task of mourning Nokuphila Kumalo? That is, do we believe that hers is a body that deserves to be mourned?”
In a response to criticism of the exhibition, the curators state that the “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.”
They mention that it is to promote conversation around gender-based violence, a point I will return to later. As further justification, they cite that they selected an artwork that shows a demure bride on her wedding day, stating that this positioning of the bride as marginalised within the marriage rite serves as testament of Mthethwa’s pre-existing patriarchal proclivities.
SWEAT rightly notes that such inclusion of the artwork as a catalyst for conversation is disingenuous. That the artwork is meant to serve as “evidence” is equally duplicitous. The framing of this artwork occurs in a context where it is believed the curator, discursively speaking, has unmitigated power, that their curatorial framing not only affects how artworks are viewed, vis-à-vis their inclusion in exhibitions, but imbues artworks with particular meaning.
In this instance, Mthethwa’s work is portrayed as one that evinces his misogyny, and this becomes justification for his inclusion in the exhibition. What is at play here is an underlying assumption that since the artwork has been positioned through the curators’ purview as “evidence”, it will invariably be read by the art-going public as such. This strikes me as peculiar, given, how art is infamous for its tendency towards ambiguity, obscurity and its refusal to succumb to neat discursive outlines. It cannot be that a work would simply be pigeonholed as “evidence” and be expected to be seamlessly read as such.
Legibility is something we take for granted. In Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur elucidates that there exist gaps between intention, meaning and interpretation; there exists always the possibility of our intentions being misconstrued. Culture, particular socio-political terrains, contexts, framing, phrasing, bias, history, among other factors, all influence how sentiments, situations and, dare I say, the presentation of artworks are understood.
Zwelethu Mthethwa killed a womxn, a sex worker in a patriarchal society with alarmingly high levels of femicide, and appallingly low prosecution rates. The inclusion of his artwork in the Javett exhibition can and should be read as a continuation of his artistic legacy by a country that takes light womxn’s right to safety, security, dignity and justice.
Another point not to be downplayed, is the connotations the term “evidence” carries. In South Africa only 4-8% of all sexual and gender-based violence cases are reported. Of the many cases that are reported many are dismissed because of a “lack of evidence”. Survivors of gender-based violence are burdened with the weight of having to provide evidence that sexual violence did occur.
Patriarchal mechanisms exist that marginalise GBV survivors. There is the trauma, and stigma attached to victimhood and the fear of repercussion among other things. Womxn know how evidence is deployed within this grander patriarchal scheme. How it is used to delegitimise womxn’s claims of gender-based violence and assault. Womxn’s knowledge of the ways evidence works against them is demonstrated by global movements such as #MeToo and #IBelieveHer.
These movements believe an intuitive understanding of the structural barriers that hinder womxn from reporting gender-based violence. They understand truly, that evidence is a legal conjuring designed to further disenfranchise womxn and that the proper response is to operate beyond the reach of Lego juridical notions as evidence. Hence these movements operate on a system of solidarity and empathy, and an intricate web of memory and intuition is cognisant of womxn’s plight vis-à-vis gender-based violence.
These movements and the womxn, LGBTQI+ persons who make up their numbers know, from a particular place, that the stakes are high. They are intuitively aware of the risks associated with coming forward in a society that is quick to vilify victims and protect perpetrators of gender-based violence.
What, then, does it mean to deploy “evidence” in such a tangential manner? More than this, what does it mean to link the specific lived experiences of sex workers, experiences of ostracisation, precarity and devaluation, to those of demure brides?
While both are rooted in a patriarchal society, one is socially accepted and has far less recourse to the state sanctioned violence, while the other, the life of a sex worker is privy to this violence in unimaginable ways. These two vastly different worlds, cannot be sutured together using “evidence” as thread.
We are a society obsessed with conversation and less invested in retribution. The TRC and the subsequent lack of structural reform post the commission are a case in point. Our radio stations are known for asking listeners to weigh in on whether or not they should play music by artists who have been accused or even found guilty of gender-based violence, for instance kwaito musician Brickz who raped his niece. There are hardly ever resolutions or decisive actions that emerge from these conversations.
Black people still suffer the effects of apartheid, Brickz’s kwaito music laden with sexist lyrics still blares from radio stations. Conversation replaces concerted reparative measure. Gabi Ngcobo refuses to have the artwork removed and instead offers SWEAT and other disgruntled members of the public an opportunity to engage through a dialogue to be convened at the end of the month. Conversation is proffered instead of a much needed and deserved restitutive effort.
Mine is to reiterate SWEAT’s request. It is to ask that the Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artwork be removed from the exhibition. The inclusion of the work is insensitive to Nokuphila Kumalo’s family, the families of other sex workers who have suffered a similar fate, as well as the many sex workers who live with the threat of violence daily.
The justifications for the inclusion tabled through the letter not only add insult to injury, they make for shaky explanatory ground. The calls to discuss this exhibition further are a ruse that must be acknowledged as such. This is a clear case of individuals prioritising an intellectual and institutional ideal over the honouring of a marginalised womxn, reminding us that those who exist on the fringes do so in life and in death. ML
Flying the American flag upside down is an officially recognized signal of distress. As is posting photos on this publication.