University of Pretoria’s Old Arts Building in Pretoria, South Africa.

South African Show With Work by Convicted Murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa Sparks Protest

The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is protesting an exhibition at the University of Pretoria’s Javett Art Center that includes work by Zwelethu Mthethwa—a South African photographer convicted of beating twenty-three-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo to death in April 2013 and sentenced to eighteen years in prison in 2017, the BBC reports. 

Protesters, including activist Tlaleng Mofokeng and Kenyan poet and human rights activist Shailja Patel, are calling for the removal of his photograph The Wedding Party, 1996, from the show “All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence.” In a letter to curators Gabi Ngcobo, Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, and Tshegofatso Mabaso, SWEAT writes: “The irony of promoting the work of a man convicted of murdering a womxn against the backdrop of the current gender-based violence and femicide epidemic in South Africa is a complete disregard of the trauma this and all other acts of violence against womxn causes.”

They go on to call for the work’s withdrawl “out of respect to the family of Nokuphila; out of respect to the violence meted out by men to vulnerable and marginalized populations, and to the countless victims of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa.”

In response, Ngcobo issued a statement on Tuesday defending the work’s inclusion, writing that their “curatorial strategy is not one that endorses but one that rather seeks to reveal the hypocrisy that we often encounter in our field.” She continues: “We elected to utilize his work to present a psycho-social analysis that exposes his violent actions as not emerging out of the blue. This work stands as another piece of evidence that exposes his misogyny and toxicity.”

Mthethwa, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial but chose not to testify in court, was represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, and his works can be found in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the South African National Gallery. After the artist was convicted, and following numerous protests by SWEAT and others in 2016, many South African art institutions declared they would stop showing his work.