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The Exhibition Displaying the Artwork of a Convicted Murderer is Defending It

The lead curator says the display is an 'opportunity for dialogue on violence against women.'

UPDATE 03/10: The lead curator of the Javett Art Center at the University of Pretoria, Gabi Ngcobo, is defending the display of the artwork belonging to former South African painter and photographer, Zwelethu Mthethwa, according to the BBC. Mthethwa was convicted of murdering a sex worker in 2017 and subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison. However, the display of his artwork at the "All in a Day's Eye: The Politics of Innocence" exhibition has sparked outrage among activists and sex workers' advocacy groups.


In defending the exhibition's decision to continue displaying Mthethwa's artwork, Ngcobo said that, "We agree that Zwelethu is causing pain and so the idea that an exhibition is a platform for celebrating, promoting, making things more relevant, for me as a curator is quite problematic; because our aim was to problematize [sexual violence]." He added that, "We have seen in South Africa people coming from jail, having served time, being celebrated and we want to create a space where there is no space for this person to be in our midst anymore."

This matter however, is not new. Back in 2016, while Mthethwa was on trial for murder, another of his artworks was displayed at the "Our Lady" exhibition at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town. The curator of the exhibition, Kirsty Cockerill, also defended the artwork by saying that, "Curators are not judges, and museums are not courtrooms." She added that, "A lot of the art world has veered away from it. But, we feel we cannot be judge or jury."

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The Sex Workers Education Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is a rights group which is advocating for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. More recently, they are fighting for the artwork of former South African painter and photographer, Zwelethu Mthethwa, to be removed from an exhibition entitled "All in a Day's Eye: The Politics of Innocence" at the University of Pretoria's Javett Art Center. Mthethwa was convicted of the murder of Nokuphila Kumalo, a 23-year-old sex worker at the time, after his gruesome act was caught on CCTV footage. In 2017, Mthethwa was sentenced to 18 years and is currently serving the remainder of his sentence at Pollsmoor Prison. The center has put his artwork on display with the caption that highlights that Mthethwa still maintains his innocence till this day.

Prominent South African reproductive rights activist Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng and Kenyan poet and human rights activist, Shailja Patel, have both called out the University of Pretoria for their inclusion of Mthethwa's artwork on their respective social media platforms. The two have both criticized the university's decision to uphold Mthethwa's own continued claim of innocence with Dr Tlaleng insisting that it is "a violent erasure of his deeds" and Patel reminding the institution that Mthethwa was "caught on camera".

SWEAT has now created and shared an online petition asking South Africans to mobilize and demand that Mthethwa's artwork be removed immediately. However, the University of Pretoria has not yet responded to calls to have the artwork taken down.


Photo by Sabelo Mkhabela.

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