How can we look at the art of a murderer?

The curatorial choice to exhibit the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, convicted of murder in 2017, is a minefield that poses the questions, what do we do with ugly genius and how do we centre harm?

Once in a while, an exhibition in South Africa reverberates beyond the white walls of the gallery. Perhaps the last time this happened was artist Brett Murray’s show Hail to the Thief II in May 2012 at the Goodman Gallery. 

The exhibition featured a painting entitled The Spear, which was a pastiche of Viktor Semyonovich Ivanov’s poster Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live but, instead of showing the likeness of the great Russian theorist and revolutionary, it featured the face of then president Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed. Naturally, the ANC was outraged, and organise a protest outside the gallery. The painting was subsequently defaced with paint by two aggrieved men, Barend la Grange and Lowie Mabokela. In effectively a postmodern gesture, painting on a painting.

The anger that has trailed All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Family Collection– an exhibition at the recently opened Javett Art Centre in Pretoria, curated by Gabi Ngcobo assisted by Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso – is, of course, different to that of seven years ago, in content and context. 

Then, Zuma bestrode the land like a medieval king and had absolute control of the state and its organs and the governing ANC. “The African National Congress is extremely disturbed and outraged by the distasteful and indecent manner in which Brett Murray and the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg is displaying the person of comrade President Jacob Zuma,” said Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s spokesperson at the time. When the weekly newspaper City Press refused to take down an image of the painting from its website, the ANC called for a boycott of the paper.  

At the forefront of the current call for the removal of a painting by convicted murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa at Javett, which is part of the curated selection of work in All in a Day’s Eye, is Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), an activist group lobbying for the rights of sex workers. 

Zwelethu was found guilty of murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, 23, a sex worker, in Woodstock, Cape Town. 

The group says: “The belligerent insistence of the curators that their own understanding of what they were trying to achieve with the exhibition matters more than anyone’s actual experience of it or the extreme hurt and harm to sex workers and other womxn caused has been dispiriting and deeply frustrating.

The curators’ judgement 

“Throughout our interactions, Sweat has tried to maintain a level of respect and solidarity, repeatedly stating that it is not the intention of the curators that we question but rather their judgement to include the work of a murderer. This has not been reciprocated by the curators; over the course of the last few weeks we have been accused of being liars, of being simply too ignorant to understand what the exhibition is trying to achieve and of trying to shut down space for critical discussion.”  

On social media and in mainstream media, many wrote to question the curators’ judgement. “It’s a rather strange kind of spin to say you’re going to exhibit the work of a murderer in order to talk about how the murderer is problematic,” wrote Stellenbosch University lecturer and literary critic Wamuwi Mbao on Twitter. 

Wendy Tlou weighed in: “Only catching up to this Zwelethu Mthethwa art issue now. Isn’t he in jail for assaulting and/or killing a woman? So we’re using his paintings as what? Hayi, we’ve lost the way. No amount of academic discourse can make that even remotely right.”  

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The case was written about extensively in the South African and international media.  

Writing in the Daily Maverick newspaper, writer and researcher Sihle Motsa said that justice involves more than the institutions and organs set up to dispense the same – judges and courts, police stations and community policing forums. 

“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.”

Motsa then makes reference to the title of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest novel, This Mournable Body, the third in a trilogy that began with the feminist classic, Nervous Conditions

“I read 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?”

The curators’ explanation

In response to the criticism, Ngcobo said that her and her assistants’ curatorial intention was “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.” Far from celebrating his work, Ngcobo said, the inclusion of the murderer’s work in the show was “with the sole purpose of presenting it as ‘evidence’ that highlights how misogyny has played out in his work over time.” 

Ngcobo – one of the leading curators not only in South Africa, the continent, but also the world, as proved by her curation of last year’s 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art – added: 

“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.” 

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Ngcobo said, in an interview from Brazil, that she had received a commission from the gallery to exhibit some of the works in their collection. As she went through the collection, she saw how in the catalogues commissioned by the auctioneers, South Africa’s history had been erased in the uncritical texts written to solicit buyers. 

As she perused the collection, she decided to not only talk of the beauty of the work but also about the works’ “perceived innocence”. (Revelatory are the artworks in the show, Girl with Flower by Alexis Preller, Blossom Time by Francis Oerder and Namaqualand in Spring by Pieter Hugo Naudé, paintings in which landscape and beautiful nature are themes.) Ngcobo said she wanted to make a narrative that looks at different moments in South Africa’s history, especially those that deal with violence, which “people don’t talk about when talking about these artists”.  

Some of these people were racists, Ngcobo said, namechecking 20th-century South African artist Maggie Laubser, pointing out how some of these racist artists are fêted, especially by white art historians in South Africa. In the show, there is a painting by Laubser that depicts a black “washer woman”, carrying a bucket, a scarf covering her head, wearing an apron, on a farm in Oortmanspoort. 

Dialogue and the visual essay

Ngcobo asked: “How do we read the violence, how do we speak about it? We wanted a dialogue, but I am just sad that the dialogue is going away from the exhibition as a visual essay that has connected themes that lead to the people seen as at the bottom of the social scale.”  

In turning to talk about Mthethwa, who was convicted in 2017 for brutally murdering Kumalo and sentenced to 18 years in prison, Ngcobo said the curators’ idea was to look at the perpetrator and the signs of misogyny that were already evident in the work. 

Mthethwa’s work on show is titled The Wedding Party and features a man clad in a black suit and grey Stetson hat, with a woman in a wedding dress who is looking impassively into the near distance as she sips on a drink from a straw; in front of the newlyweds is a wedding cake. The man is looking away from the bride and shaking the hand of another man who commands his full attention. 

The question that came to mind when I went to see the show was: if you can’t give your full attention to your wife on your wedding day, when then are you going to? I also wondered what kind of mind produces this kind of work, which decentres the bride on her wedding day. 

In the accompanying text, which is attached to works of importance in the exhibition, the curators give a context of the work and, in conclusion, write: “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.”

When I asked Ngcobo if, as one curator suggested to me, what if instead of Mthethwa’s painting they had a blank space in which an explanatory text was affixed, the curator said, “How do we speak without language? This could also apply to other works in the exhibition. We could take down everything and do a walkabout without nothing except the text.” 

Kumalo’s killing is a result of the historical imbalances in South Africa, Ngcobo said. The Durban-born curator’s point is borne out by works such as Baipoi Informal Settlement by Vusi Khumalo, a mixed-media artwork that shows the bareness and ugliness of township spatial dynamics; George Pemba’s painting of black people travelling, Black People in the Bus, perhaps hinting at the migrant labour system that uprooted men from the former homelands to work on the mines; and Frieda Lock’s painting that gestures at the Cape’s slave past and was originally titled Slave Quarters, Spier Farm, Stellenbosch, but later retitled A Cape Dutch Homestead. 

All these works are part of the genealogy of South Africa’s bitter history of colonial violence, which spills over into the post-1994 period, a legacy that certainly contributed to the murder of Kumalo.

Find the blacksmith

Yet, as Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote in Anthills of the Savannah, in trying to distinguish between immediate and historical causes, “if you want to get at the root of murder, you have to look for the blacksmith who made the machete”. Obviously, as a character in the novel points out, that information on who made the machete isn’t useful to a detective investigating an actual crime, but is meant to broaden the scope of our thinking. 

What’s not immediately clear in Jacob Hendrik Pierneef’s pristine landscapes, such as A View Through Trees, an oil painting in which two giant trees stand by side while, in the distance, the view extends on to a river, forest and towering mountain, is the violence employed in the extirpation of black presences to make possible this “innocence”. Yet whatever violence was used in the removal of black people from this land, as some would say, as far as we know, Pierneef never killed anyone in the way Mthethwa did. 

It’s the same point made by Grace A Musila, a literary scholar based at the African literature department of the University of the Witwatersrand. She said there is the issue of scale that doesn’t quite work. Even though the African washer woman’s consent might have been secured by Laubser in “complicated” ways, it is a stretch to link that work with that of Mthethwa to show that a murderer has always been a misogynist. 

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In thinking about the outrage produced by the curators’ choices, Musila said: “There was a miscalculation with regards to the moment, context and immediacy of the outrage about SA’s record of femicide. Including Mthethwa’s work in the show, while well-intentioned, demanded a different imaginative strategy of making the same critique without showing his work.”

Musila also asked: “How does value accrue to an artist in the art world? By being shown. You are saying, but yes, we are showing it in this context. But how many people are going to zoom in on that detail and to what extent will that framing undercut the value that will accrue from recirculation?” 

Bad people and artistic genius

The literary scholar sought to locate the Mthethwa case study in a larger context: “What do we do with artistic geniuses who give us so much but who have been implicated in very problematic things?” She could have been talking about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who was notoriously abusive of his wives; or pop music icon Michael Jackson, who is accused of being a paedophile; or R&B producer and musician R Kelly, who has been accused of being a sexual predator; or French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who, after writing beautiful verse, turned his hand to slave trading; or American poet Ezra Pound, without whose work modernism would have taken a different turn, but who was an unrepentant fascist. 

“What must I do with all my R Kelly now?” Musila asked. “That’s the question we are not ready to ask ourselves because it forces us to confront the fact that ugly people can make beautiful things, that damaged people do create things that give life.”  

Musila wasn’t advocating what’s called a cancel culture. “I don’t believe in completely erasing these people. But I believe that if we take seriously the harm they have done, then we can find the imagination to find ways of commenting on their works without continuing to add value to them.” The conversation is different across genres. Music poses different challenges to visual art, which poses different challenges to fiction.

Questions posed by art are quite clear, even though the answers are muddled. It has been seven years since the furore of The Spear, but we are no closer to resolving the ambiguities of that exhibition and, I suspect, it will be a long time before we figure out the morality and ethics of showing Mthethwa in the exhibition All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence.

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