SWEAT is calling on the University of Pretoria to remove a convicted murderer’s artwork. The organisation is known as the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce works with the rights of sex workers. They’ve called on lead curator Gabi Ngcobo and Christopher Till, Director of the Javett Art Centre to remove the artwork of convicted womxn murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa. Mthethwa’s work is currently part of the “All in Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence” exhibition at the university.
In 2013, Mthethwa was caught on CCTV footage beating to death 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo. He was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in 2017. He is currently serving his sentence at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
Speaking to The Daily Vox Lesego Tlhwale, SWEAT Advocacy Manager said “we don’t have space to be celebrating abusers” in a country with such high levels of gender-based violence.
A petition hosted on amandla.mobi explains the reasons for the calls for the removal. The petition has been signed by 635 people at the time of publishing.
Tlhwale said they are asking the curators to explain their reasons for choosing to include Mthethwa’s work. This is despite knowing the background of what he’s done. This is not the first time, SWEAT has called for Mthethwa’s work to be removed. In 2016 the National Galley put up his artwork. SWEAT called the organisation out during that time, asking for it to be removed. Tlhwale says at that time he was still the accused in the case. He had not been convicted as yet.
Tlhwale questioned the work as a celebration of Mthethwa’s work at a time when gender-based violence is an epidemic. “So he’s making money, he’s getting the fame, he’s getting the glory. Meanwhile, the mother lost a child and every time she sees this man in the public space and public eye, that’s a trigger point,” said Thlwale.
SWEAT is calling for the artwork to be removed, saying the curators can then use the space for whatever they want. Tlhwale says before the exhibition began, they raised their concerns with the curators. In response, they were told by the curators they are trying to open up a conversation around the work.
“So before we can even start a conversation, we want to sit and we can have a dialogue, and then maybe we can open their eyes on the political implications of this kind of issues,” said Tlhwale.
Speaking to The Daily Vox, a representative from UP said they would be respecting the curators’ decision to use Mthetwa’s art. Ngcobo with Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, and Tšhegofatso Mabaso, curator and research team of the exhibition released a statement responding to SWEAT.
In the statement it says: “Our intention with this intervention into the Javett Art Collection is to present a visual essay that opens this space up to scrutiny using the example of Mthethwa’s work, as it is our duty too, as black womxn in art spaces, to create platforms where these forms of violence can be exposed, challenged, and or criminalised.”
The statement goes on to say that they show his work as “evidence” that highlights how misogyny has played out in his work over time.”
Tlhwale says it’s important that perpetrators of gender-based violence aren’t allowed to be in the public space. “If you’re gonna be committing such an act of killing, abusing other people, it means you can’t be part of the society that we live in. We want a society where people are safe,” said Tlhwale.
Tlhwale said while sex work might not yet be legal in South Africa, the rights of sex workers need to be protected and their work shouldn’t cost them their lives. Therefore, Tlhwale says “attention shouldn’t be given to aggressors.”
“Let’s preserve the memories of those we have lost. Those who have suffered abuse. Let’s elevate their voices rather than elevating the voices of the killer,” said Tlhwale.
As for the response from the university, Tlhwale says “It’s not a good enough response as a university.” Tlhwale says the university needs to be tuned in with what’s happening in the country.