Response by the curator and research team of collaborators of the exhibition All in Day’s Eye
Response by the curator and research team of collaborators of the exhibition All in Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Family Collection to an open letter issued by SWEAT
This is our response to an open letter issued by Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), an organisation that was instrumental in the monitoring of the court case that led to the conviction of the artist Zwelethu Mthethwa for the brutal murder of Nokuphila Kumalo, a 23 year old black womxn sex worker, in April 2013.
We followed closely the events surrounding the death of Nokuphila at the hands of the artist and we welcomed his sentencing to 18 years at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
I (Gabi Ngcobo) took up the challenge of working on a curatorial project looking at the Javett Family Collection at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP). Mthethwa's work is part of this collection. I was given absolute freedom to do this and sought help in the form of collaboration with three black womxn for whom I have great respect, because I wanted this collection to be read through the eyes of black womxn of different age-groups working within the art field. My colleagues Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Tšhegofatso Mabaso and I met weekly to discuss our standing regarding the works in the collection and produced texts to accompany certain works that we needed to discuss based on aspects of the works that are often left unsaid, because they are deemed uncomfortable – especially within the art spaces in which we operate.
We would like to stress that there is nothing celebratory about the exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection - our curatorial strategy is not one that endorses but one that rather seeks to reveal the hypocrisy that we often encounter in our field. The violent targeting of women in this country, and especially women who are at the bottom of the social scale, whose work is not legally protected, and who often do not have a voice can never be taken lightly. The climate and discussion around ending gender-based violence should always be at the top of our urgencies. As womxn working in the arts, we feel that the misogyny that is often hidden in art spaces and has long affected womxn personally, professionally and violently needs to be discussed openly with different constituencies of society. 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.
Our 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. We therefore elected to utilise 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. Below is the wall text we authored, which has been amended to create more clarity, following discussions with SWEAT:
Zwelethu Mthethwa’s “The Wedding Party” (1996) is the only work in this exhibition depicting a scene between two intimate partners, a man and a woman, on their wedding day. The pastel drawing portrays a close-up scene from the wedding party, as the title indicates. A wedding cake is at the center of the drawing and is flanked by three figures; the wedding couple and a man who is shaking the groom’s hand in a congratulatory gesture. The woman is not part of this conversation; she unresponsively takes a sip from her soft drink. What becomes clear is that the position or role of the woman remains one that is passive. The patriarchal gesture and the performance of masculinity present her as peripheral to the event. Through the window we see a white flag installed on top of a roof of a house, indicating, according to Zulu custom, that a man has “won” the affections of a woman.
In 2017 Mthethwa was found guilty for the brutal murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo. Despite hard evidence proving otherwise, Mthethwa maintained his innocence by stating he did not remember his deeds. He is currently serving 18 years at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
We remember not only his violent acts of brutality, but also his lack of remorse. Showing the work was not a decision we made lightly or without care. When speaking to violences existing within the collection, we did not want to preclude the urgent conversation about violent, toxic, masculinist tendencies that this work engenders. Mthethwa’s artwork still remains in major art collections across the world, and as womxn working in the art world we find it important for us to not be silent and ignore the patriarchal cloak protecting this and other similarly violent works, as they continue to grow in “value”, safely out of sight. We therefore employ a reading of the collection by strategically employing a visual essay that should encourage real and nuanced discussions that are also informed by our own lived experiences within a field that is often perceived to be innocent of acts that contribute towards making black womxn’s lives disposable.
Through our public and educational programmes we will be hosting discussions and events on various aspects of the exhibition for which the public and various stakeholders will be notified. The first discussion will take place on the 26th of October, at 13h00.
Gabi Ngcobo with Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso. Curator and research team of collaborators of the exhibition All in Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Art Collection.
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