15 December 2016
Dear Rooksana Omar (CEO of Iziko Museums),
Dear Ernestine White (Acting Director of Iziko South African National Gallery),
Dear Kirsty Cockerill, Candice Allison and Andrea Lewis (co-curators of the exhibition, Our Lady, currently on display at Iziko South African National Gallery),
We, the undersigned, write to you today to demand that all remaining works of art by the signatories of this letter be withdrawn immediately from the exhibition titled Our Lady, an exhibition curated by Candice Allison and Kirsty Cockerill (of the New Church Museum) and Andrea Lewis (of the National Gallery). We acknowledge that our request may already have been met in relation to some of the relevant works of art, by the time this letter is officially submitted to Iziko. Though we hold nuanced and divergent views as artists and as individuals, we wish to collectively express our insistence on having our work withdrawn from Our Lady, in urgent response to the exceptionally problematic nature of the exhibition.
The press material that has been released to the public in support of Our Lady claims that the exhibition “celebrate[s] empowered female capacity,” “interrupt[s] the typical traditional moral attitudes and male-dominated stereotypes that surround imagery of the female form,” and offers “a contemporary narrative demanding that women be viewed as strong, empowered beings.” In our shared opinion, the exhibition falls disastrously short of these claims in its current form, for a variety of reasons, the most obvious and pressing of which are addressed below:
Despite three (White) Women curators having co-curated Our Lady, it is impossible to overlook the fact that 75% of the artists included in the exhibition are men. This fact alone renders the curatorial claims cited above disingenuous and highly objectionable. While it might be argued that the exhibition seeks to bring a historical perspective to the issues that it sets out to frame, the many historical works by men that are included (the majority of which represent Women through the staid conventional lens of patriarchy), could quite easily have been supplemented by a broader selection of works which, in juxtaposition with these historical works by men, might have challenged the visual language of patriarchy and given voice to alternative narratives. South Africa has no paucity of artists who critically reflect on gender in their practice. In light of the curatorial rhetoric that Our Lady puts forward, the perspectives of Women, Trans and Non-Binary artists are heinously under-represented in the exhibition. Of the 27 artists whose works are included, a mere seven are Women. Considerably more shocking—(indeed appalling, considering the demographics of our society)—is the fact that only three Black Women are represented. Given the history and present of our country, we cannot accept how disastrously short the exhibition falls, particularly in terms of creating space for artistic statements from a wider and richer range of identities, a range that might come closer to reflecting the lived reality of South Africa.
Furthermore, given the curatorial premise of the exhibition, we are outraged by the curators’ decision to include the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa. As is well known within the art community, Mthethwa is currently being tried for the violent murder of Nokuphila Kumalo. Though he will remain innocent until proven guilty, the worth and memory of Ms Kumalo are brutally undermined by the curators’ decision to showcase a work by her alleged murderer in the exhibition parallel to his ongoing trial.
Adding insult to what we regard as a severely injurious curatorial decision, the particular work by Mthethwa that appears in Our Lady is a portrait of a Black Woman, who the artist chooses to treat as anonymous. Given the accusations that have been levelled against Mthethwa, and in light of the curatorial focus of this exhibition, the inclusion of a photograph of an unnamed Black Woman by Mthethwa reiterates a dominant tendency in our culture at large; that is, the propensity to view the most precarious in our society—including Black sex workers such as Ms Kumalo—as faceless, nameless and disposable nonentities who are not worthy of individual regard or dignity. We view the inclusion of Mthethwa’s work in this particular exhibition, at this particular moment in time, and in this particular context (the National Gallery of South Africa) as basely insensitive and publicity mongering at best. At worst—again, in light of the charges that Mthethwa is currently facing—we read the curatorial inclusion of this particular artist’s photograph of an anonymous and as such non-particularised Black Woman, as tacitly participating in the broader erasure of the voices of Black Women from our national narrative.
We cannot accept this callous curatorial practice. Nor can we accept the callous public statement that has been made by one of the curators, Kirsty Cockerill, in defence of the exhibition. In response to widespread public criticism, Cockerill has argued that, “the decision to show the work [by Mthethwa] was a carefully considered plan to open up dialogue, rather than pretend these problems in society don’t exist” (Mail & Guardian, 1 December 2016). We view this argument as deeply cynical and blithely tone deaf. It is highly inappropriate and crassly opportunist to treat the violent, lonely death of a Woman—whose alleged murderer is still on trial—as casual curatorial fodder, a mere “opportunity for dialogue.” We sincerely doubt that a similar curatorial move would have been considered or given official sanction by the National Gallery, had the murdered Woman been a White and/or middle-class Woman, rather than a Black Woman who lived and died at the margins of our society, servicing its needs. The impassive attitude that this exhibition expresses towards Ms Kumalo (as well as towards those who loved her and continue to mourn her), mirrors the tragically low esteem in which Black Women have been—and continue to be held—in South Africa today. Whether intentionally or not, the inclusion of only three Women of Colour in a survey exhibition setting out to “celebrate empowered female capacity” in the context of contemporary South Africa, can only serve to perpetuate attitudes of this nature. The press material for Our Lady rightly observes that throughout the history of representation, “Women’s bodies have been used as symbolic objects, representing political, erotic or aesthetic ideals, rather than representing individual female subjects,” only to go right ahead and perpetuate such injustice via the blunt inclusion of Mthethwa’s work in the exhibition.
In the press material for Our Lady, the curators also claim to have specifically and strategically organised this exhibition to coincide with ‘16 Days of Activism,’ a campaign aimed at raising awareness around the high rate of violent crimes against Women and Children in South Africa. The disproportionately few works by Women that this exhibition includes—hung alongside a relative plethora of works by dead white men (as well as one work by a black man who is suspected of violently murdering a Woman)—completely undermines the integrity of this strategy, making it impossible not to read the scheduling of the exhibition in relation to ‘16 Days of Activism’ as expedient and insincere. For all of these reasons, we stand in solidarity with SWEAT—the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce—who have strongly condemned the Iziko South African National Gallery for its decision to include Mthethwa’s artwork in Our Lady. As Ishtar Lakhani of SWEAT has said, “The irony of promoting the work of a man accused of murdering a woman as part of an exhibition aimed at empowering women, is not wasted on us.” (The Citizen, 28 November 2016).
We wish the anger that this letter expresses regarding the inclusion of our works in this exhibition to be understood in relation to the fact that the exhibition is hung at the most prestigious art institution in this country—the South African National Gallery. It would be hard to overlook the problematic nature of Our Lady in any context. It is all the more impossible for us to accept the curatorial conceits underlying the exhibition in view of the fact that it has been endorsed by an institution that has an official mandate to be representative of our society, as well as a special duty to redress—especially at the level of representation—the radical social inequity that continues to characterise South African society. Oscar Pistorius was denied the honour of competing athletically under the South African flag while he was on trial for having violently murdered Reeva Steenkamp, an affluent White Woman. We neither understand nor accept the National Gallery’s extension of the prestige of representation at a national level to Mthethwa as he stands trial for the murder of Ms Kumalo, an impoverished Black Woman who ought certainly to be afforded the same degree of posthumous dignity as Ms Steenkamp.
For all of the above reasons, we demand that you remove our works from this exhibition without delay. We cannot and will not accept the inclusion of our works alongside Mthethwa’s work, in an exhibition that is supposedly intended to celebrate Women and disrupt patriarchal violence. We cannot and will not allow our works to be framed by curatorial assertions that the exhibition itself reveals as hollow, cynical and insensitive in the extreme, not only to the memory of Ms Kumalo (and by extension to the many who face the same prejudices that are directed against Women of her social status), but also to all who believe that the lives of Women are valuable, regardless of their race, class, social status or profession.
The presence of our works in Our Lady—and in the publicity materials that have been distributed to accompany the exhibition—can only be read as supportive of both, which is all the less acceptable to us in light of the fact that we were not consulted before our works were incorporated into the exhibition, nor—for the most part—informed that our works had been included after the fact. We are not your ladies. We refuse to endorse this shameful exhibition in its current form. In memory of Nokuphila Kumalo, for Women artists, and for all Women who have been and continue to be nonchalantly erased from taking a rightful seat at the table, we demand that you remove our works from this exhibition immediately.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Note: This open letter compiles extensive content and commentary contributed by all of the Women whose works were curated into Our Lady (with the exception of the deceased artist Constance Stuart Larrabee). It communicates the collective opinions of the six artists (listed above). Candice Breitz contributed to, formulated and edited the letter in active collaboration with the artists, and with the kind support of Farzanah Badsha and M. Neelika Jayawardane.