Open Letter to Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria

Javett Art Centre promotes work of womxn murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa

The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) condemns the decision of Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria to include the work of convicted murderer Zwelethu Mthethwa as part of their inaugural opening exhibition showcasing. In the light of Mthethwa’s ongoing 18-year imprisonment for the murder of Nokuphila Kumalo, a sex worker he brutally beat to death in 2013, the promotion of his work is not only in extremely bad taste but also deeply offensive to Nokuphila’s memory, but also to every other womxn murdered at the hands of men.

In its attempt to celebrate notable African artists, the Javett Art Centre has in fact decided to glorify and celebrate a convicted murderer rather than respect Nokuphila, a 23-year-old woman whose beaten body was found in Ravenscraig Road in Woodstock, Cape Town on 13 April 2013. Mthethwa was arrested and convicted of Nokuphila’s murder after irrefutable evidence that included CCTV camera footage that captured the vicious beating that identified him as the perpetrator. Furthermore, the caption Javett posted that Mthethwa has ‘always maintained his innocence’ is a violent erasure of his deeds and speaks to a lack of very basic humanity and decency.

The irony of promoting the work of a man convicted of murdering a woman as part of an exhibition in the backdrop of the gender-based violence and femicide epidemic in South Africa is a complete disregard of the agony and trauma this and all other acts of violence against womxn cause. This is in actual fact, a slap in the face of womxn who have been killed by men like Zwelethu Mthethwa, who in turns continue to be celebrated by the supremacist capitalist patriarchal world. 

Sex workers are disproportionally disadvantaged and research has shown that female sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other womxn. This is because men like Mthethwa see womxn like Nokuphila as disposable. Javett Art Centre echoes this by, rather than focussing on victims of brutality such as Nokuphila, instead chooses to focus on the “celebrity”.

In 2016, SWEAT and the community that Nokuphila belonged to unbelievably found themselves in a similar situation having to defend why it is inappropriate for the Iziko National Gallery of South Africa to exhibit Mthethwa’s work as part of their “Our Lady” exhibition that sought to “interrupt the puritanical and patriarchal visual economy that surrounds imagery of the figurative female form” as part of their collection. We stood firm at this planned celebration of a man accused of murder in a public space and this current incident by Javett Art Centre is no different.

Given how recently Nokuphila was murdered, followed by the trauma of the court case, we find it painful and unacceptable that Nokuphila’s family and community have been excluded from conversations around what it might mean to platform the work of Mthethwa.  

We call on the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria to take down Mthethwa’s work out of respect to the family of Nokuphila; out of respect to the violence meted out by men to vulnerable and marginalised communities; and to the countless victims of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa.

Please find below articles condemning the art world’s support of Mthethwa:

Lesego Tlhwale

Human Rights and Advocacy Manager

Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce

Tel: 021 448 7875