Currently in the Zwelethu Mthethwa trial the authenticity of the video footage, placing the artist at the scene of the brutal murder of Nonkuphila Kumalo, is being questioned. The legal implications of this argument – while seemingly desperate, to this writer at least, on the part of Mthethwa’s legal team to claim that the footage may have been tampered with – are beyond my skill set. It would be an interesting think-piece to consider how the evidentiary value of images is being eroded by the ability to digitally manipulate pixels. That is to say it would be interesting if the content of this video wasn’t of an alleged murder, and its manipulation implausible.
It put me in mind, however, that the same sense of doubt hasn’t been cast over Mthethwa’s own images, the decades of work of a successful artist. The writing around this trial has largely been that of news or when broader in scope it has centred around either the supposed silence of the art world or around gender violence. These are, of course, all valid and important responses. The only value judgements so far, on the actual material legacy of Mthethwa have been economic and, frankly, vile (I’m here referring to remarks by Stephen Welz and Ruarc Peffers, who admittedly later both apologised for their thoughtlessness).
So here is a fundamental question of value: if Mthethwa is capable of stomping another human to death, as has been alleged, what do we make of a body of work whose core themes seemed to be dignity and empathy?
This questions the authenticity of the work. I’m using the word authenticity here to imply a correlation between the intention of the photographer and the qualities we read in the photographs. Not whether the works themselves have solemnity, but whether the photographer was faking it, putting out appealing ideas without believing them.
It also seems like a betrayal of the people pictured in the work. Do they not retain their dignity merely because the artist photographing them has none? Or is their dignity unimportant?
I feel like using the photos themselves as some sort of evidence. Can we read something of Mthethwa’s motives in the work? There is an implicit violence in photography. This is a platitude in studying photography. We accept the unequal power relationships, and the deep irony of inequities on display in a gallery between the viewer and the viewed – this is a commonplace violence. But this is not the same as the physical violence Mthethwa is accused of. And if he is guilty I want to see this evidence in the work, something hateful. But it’s not there.
Certainly if Mthethwa did commit that crime then we need to not just re-evaluate his work, but re-evaluate our system of valuation of art, re-evaluate how we see moral ideas like dignity and empathy in art, and re-evaluate the system that puts monetary value on these qualities.
I want to add here, that ultimately this trial involves the death of a human, Nokuphila Kumalo. While talking about art, morality and value, the horror of that fact should never be far from our minds.