Zwelethu Mthethwa at the Cape Town High Court. Photo: Adrian de Kock/Independent Media
Cape Town - Paintings by an artist standing trial for the murder of a prostitute is at the centre of a bitter dispute between the South African National Gallery and The New Church Museum.

The controversy over the work has led to other artists withdrawing their work, a petition to halt the exhibition and protests.

The gallery’s walls are blank, the result of an ongoing petition, and a fallout after the partnership between the gallery and museum to host an exhibition, titled Our Lady, went sour.

The exhibition, which opened on November 11, is a multi-media collaboration drawn from the permanent historical art collections of Iziko Museums and The New Church Museum’s contemporary artworks.

The official description of the exhibition says it is designed to interrupt the typical traditional moral attitudes and male-dominated stereotypes that surrounds the imagery of the female form.

However, the exhibition was marred by controversy and public outcry when murder-accused photographer and painter Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artwork was part of the exhibition. Mthethwa is accused of stabbing and beating to death a 23-year-old prostitute, Nokupila Kumalo in Cape Town in 2013. Mthethwa, who has been charged with murder and is out on bail of R100 000, is standing trial at the Western Cape High Court.

In an effort to remove the artwork by Mthethwa, a silent protest was staged outside Iziko SANG by Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the Sisonke sex workers’ movement in December.

Sweat spokesperson Lesego Thwale said: “This protest was successful for many reasons as it not only contributed to the removal of Mthethwa’s work and the increased visibility of Nokuphila Kumalo, the victim in Mthetwa’s case, but it also opened up a larger debate on the representation of women and the lack of transformation in the ‘art world’.”

Iziko said they were aware the accused’s artwork was on display as it was in the public domain, but the original proposal from The New Church Museum did not include his work.

“We were not in favour of the inclusion of the work, it was not in the original proposal that came from The New Church Museum,” said Iziko SANGS head of the art collections, Ingrid Masonda.

Iziko removed the artworks of three artists who requested that their work be removed, after the artists requested it in late November.

Iziko described this as a tough decision to make. “On the morning of December 15, the day of the public discussion, The New Church Museum, who we were in partnership with, came to get their work including Zwelethu Mthethwa’s artwork and that was the end of the partnership,” said Masonda.

“We decided to honour some artists wishes for their work to be taken down because we understood it was a very sensitive matter. We had to take a decision.

“In a way I think they (The New Church Museum) felt disrespected by us honouring some artists and thought well the exhibition is therefore no longer what was intended and is already not looking like what it was. We were in collaboration but now we are not. When they removed the work it fell apart. There is no more New Church work left here.”

According to Masonda, the three works were initially removed at the artist’s request.

Although, the exhibition is still opened and was scheduled to run up until June 2017, Iziko has considered to reconfigure the exhibition.

“We are in discussion with various people on how to reconfigure it; some people feel the empty spaces say a lot, so there’s different views and we are going through processes of exploring what can happen, but in the meantime, it is as it was from December 15.”

The New Church Museum director Kirsty Cockerill said the mass withdrawal of artworks at the exhibition was because it came to their attention that individual works had been taken down by the Iziko SANG, a decision they described as “unilateral”.

“The New Church Museum withdrew it works from the censored exhibition and signed a dissolving of partnership agreement.”

Cockeril said the museum had no regrets about the inclusion of the artwork of Mthethwa as his work “was selected through the process of reason”.

“We do not regret the decision to include the work. We do, however, regret the unintended hurt caused by the inclusion. The New Church Museum is of the perspective that the inclusion of the work by Mthethwa in the exhibition is neither right, nor wrong. It was selected through a process of reason, not moral judgement.

“To exhibit a work of art is not to endorse the work or the vision, ideas, opinions or actions of the artist. It is to uphold the right of all to experience diverse visions and views. If and when controversies arise from the exhibition of a work of art, we welcome public discussion and debate with the belief that such discussion is integral to the experience of the art.”

Cockeril said the action done by The New Church Museum was not motivated by a desire to protect private assets, a claim the signatories made in an open letter.

“We do not believe in censoring exhibitions in response to political or ideological pressure and hence withdrew from the exhibition when Iziko made the decision to do so.”

Iziko curator Andrea Lewis, who was one of three curators for the exhibition, said this has been a huge learning curve for everybody involved.

“Museums can no longer separate themselves from social responsibility; we may have been able to do so in the past, we may have been able to be a neutral space, but we live in a country where there are so many issues and we want to be agents of change. I am sorry we have hurt so many people in the process.”

Weekend Argus