The painting above, by Astrid Warren and commissioned by SWEAT, is based on Nokuphila Kumalo’s mugshot. It is an irony that the only representation of Kumalo is one centered on discipline and patriarchal power. The strength of Warren’s painting lies in part in shifting that narrative, in retranslating her image. It is also the painting SWEAT offered to the National Gallery to replace Mthethwa’s work currently on display in the ‘Our Lady’ exhibition. “If the gallery takes seriously its call to interrupt patriarchy,” they said in a statement calling for the removal of the work, “this painting is a direct manifestation of resistance.”
Iziko and the New Church Museum responded with a joint statement. A sentence from that statement struck me as emblematic of the problems inherent in the inclusion of the work:
“The decision to include Mthethwa’s Untitled cannot be removed from the context of the exhibition, nor can it be overridden by the current events surrounding the alleged murder of Nokuphila Moudy Kumalo – for which the artist is currently standing trial.”
I’m going to take the context as the position, elaborated in the statement as well as on the wall text in the museum, that ‘Our Lady’ is motivated by challenging and critically engaging with patriarchy in representations of women. I’m not sure it is particularly well articulated in the exhibition: there seem to be no disruptions, and the counternarratives appear weak and underthought. Be that as it may, this is a pretty standard way of describing what we expect exhibitions to achieve: critical engagement, opening dialogue, etc. On the other hand, I believe that we can remove the work and the decision to include it from the context of the exhibition. We must look at it in the context of the museum and the context of a collection.
A museum show has value in the dialogue opened, thoughts generated, critique leveled, audience engaged and other important intangibles. However, there are other intangibles that go along with a space of a museum: legitimacy, relevancy, importance, reputation, prominence. This second set of intangibles affect the tangible value of a work, what it is worth.
This asks a difficult question. The Mthethwa piece is part of the New Church Museum collection, while it is styled as a museum, is a private collection. They are leveraging their collection to achieve the first set of intangibles, a laudable goal. Yet they are also leveraging the Iziko museums on the second set of intangibles. I’m not suggesting the curators and the owner of the New Church are in an evil conspiracy. But this aspect cannot be ignored. We need to ask, when all the chips have fallen, who benefits?
With this in mind, the second part of the statement, that the decision to include the work cannot be overridden by the current events of the trial. Yes. Yes, it can.
Several points here: the murder is not alleged. The identity of the murderer is still alleged. The murder itself is very real. Secondly, the trial is not a current event: it has been ongoing for three years. Exhibiting Mthethwa’s work in this context, even if the trial is still sub judice, is an affront to Kumalo.
So it comes down to what we value more? Our dialogue and the value of art? Or the dignity of a murdered woman?
Jody Brand’s recent work #SayHerName continues to pierce and challenge these assumption. The work is a collection of roses suspended upside down in the entrance to the gallery. Brand describes the work in an interview with Keely Shinners:
“It became important to me to bring in the story of Nokuphila Kumalo. I’m an artist; Mthethwa’s an artist. We’re essentially in the same community. But the whole thing is talked about in such a way because they want it to disappear, and it will. It will disappear without the work of SWEAT. For me, I wanted to pierce a hole. As an artist, I want to say that this is unacceptable. We won’t be quiet about it. That’s how I was occupying space with the installation. It was about Nokuphila, the trial.
“I came across a recent interview with the mother, which was the inspiration of the flowers. Her mother has basically given up on the case; she can’t afford it. She has a job decorating cakes. She lives in a shack in the townships. It’s fucking disgusting. She went to lay these flowers where her daughter was murdered.”
This feels to me like dialogue and critical engagement.
Since writing this, SWEAT and Iziko have released a joint statement, regarding co-operation on the issue
Keep up to date with the trial here