Trigger Warning: violence against women, sexual violence, child abuse
“Murder suspect’s art could make a killing” – The Times, May 26 2014
It’s a catchy title and a clever pun, presumably formulated so as to incite a carefully considered low-level provocation while also making sure the reader is aware that this is a light-hearted, if ‘shocking’ (as in ‘shocking pictures of Angelina Jolie’s bikini body will make you rethink poverty’) article, and that the main focus of the piece is the value of the murder suspect’s art. The third formulation of the title is, of course, the pun itself, which equates murder with capital, the suggestion that murder (or the suspicion of murder) is likely to increase the monetary worth of the artist’s work.
“I don’t believe that the trial will necessarily have any negative effects on [the artist’s] market. Caravaggio spent most of his mature life running around Italy trying to avoid the law and today he is one of the most sought-after artists of all time,” South African art expert Ruarc Peffers told The Times.
It’s 2014, and Peffers is talking about Zwelethu Mthethwa, a world-renowned South African artist who is accused of viciously murdering a woman named Nokuphila Kumalo on April 13 2013. Caravaggio lived circa 1610 and is generally believed to have (possibly accidentally) murdered a man in a brawl. Mthethwa was apparently caught on CCTV stepping out of his car, a Porsche, which is shown to have left his home at the time of the killing, and allegedly beating and kicking Kumalo to death. Very little is known about Kumalo except that she is believed to have been a sex worker.
You would think everyone would be talking about this; at the very least, everyone in the South African art world. But there remains a baffling silence around the horror of Mthethwa’s alleged crime, which, barring the kinds of gross speculations around the artist’s financial situation and potential monetary value as seen in The Times and reposted in the SA Art Times without comment, there is barely any comment on the alleged murder or the victim (with the notable exception of Rebecca Davis very recent Daily Maverick analysis about the double standards of the murder of a young black sex worker). Indeed the South African art press has been pathologically silent on the matter ever since the story broke in June last year; first in an article in Die Burger and picked up by Charl Blignaut in City Press. Mthethwa is out on bail of R100 000, and at his retrial conference on June 13 his trial date was set for November.
The primary reason the arts community claims to see it fit not to discuss Mthethwa’s trial is that this story of a famous South African artist accused of murdering a woman in cold blood is not an art story − it’s gossip, none of our business (which means, of course, we will not let it interfere with our business of art).
Mthethwa is represented by the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg. When asked if Mthethwa had confirmed or denied killing Kumalo, the gallery’s director, Mark Read, said it was not for him to ask that question, saying: “I have chosen not to ask questions of Zwelethu. We’ve not spoken about it and I respect his privacy in this most appalling time,” in an article titled Gallery stands by its artist. The only report on the matter from the time of the allegation I can find on ArtThrob, South Africa’s online art journal, states similarly that “one of Mthethwa’s gallerists, Mark Read, has stated that he had spoken to the artist since the reports came out and that: ‘he [Mthethwa] was keen to say that it will all be sorted out’. When I called out ArtThrob, the South African Art Times and Art South Africa about their lack of comment on Twitter shortly after the story broke, all three publications replied that this was an inappropriate thing to comment on, that they needed ‘proof’ before saying anything (they still have not said anything) or, of course, “But he’s innocent until proven guilty” − an assertion one of my artist friends also proffered when I was in Cape Town recently and one that makes my blood boil in almost any circumstance.
South Africans have a strange relationship to the justice system and the constitutional right of the accused to be considered innocent until proven guilty. When President Jacob Zuma was on trial for rape, no one felt, for example, that they should shout about his right to innocence. When we read of our apparently homophobic Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s penchant for short sentences for child rapists because they do not cause enough physical injury, we do not (I hope) think, “Ah well, the law decided that one can safely assume that [the accused] must have been mindful of [the victim’s] tender age and was thus so careful as not to injure her private parts, except accidentally, when he penetrated her”. Rather, we think Mogoeng appears to be a social conservative with an apparently disturbing rationale and that our courts, which do not feature a jury in South Africa, is not a place for a fair or objective trial. This is true, of course, of any justice system in the world that favours the rich, those in power, the conservatives, and will punish and maim and kill all others.
I don’t necessarily believe in the courts to do the right and proper thing. It might also be worth keeping in mind that Mthethwa was charged a month after Kumalo’s death as he was apparently away on business.
There are similarities between Mthethwa and Oscar Pistorius (whose own murder trial has seen the degradation of the image of Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he killed): two rich, macho, famous South African men and their alleged murders of women. Yet while Pistorius got a channel, a million news articles and worldwide coverage, Mthethwa has been largely ignored. While this is no doubt mostly because the global media is more interested in sports and Nike advertisements than it is in contemporary art, it is also true, as Rebecca Davis pointed out in The Daily Maverick, that “the murder of an unknown potential sex worker, however brutal, will not grab column inches in the way of a blonde model” − and it is not only in the media that the lives of some are worth more than the lives of others. SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and other advocacy groups have protested at Mthethwa’s hearings, and it is certainly worth considering that what is perhaps most unusual about this case is that it is being noticed at all when so much violence against sex workers in our country is perpetrated routinely and without comment.
Ask yourself, art world, if Mthethwa were accused of murdering a nice white girl, maybe a Michaelis student, someone who had a name from the start − as opposed to being called, merely, “prostitute” − would you care then? Or would you still be silent, awkward? Would you still hug him in greeting when you run into him at an expensive restaurant, do you think?
But, let’s return to Peffers and auction house Strauss & Co’s proposition that not only will no one care that Mthethwa may have murdered Kumalo, that the art world will not only protect him but that his work will increase in value, both economically and conceptually, should he be found guilty of this particular violence. “If Zwelethu does go to prison, he might produce something really interesting,” drooled Stephan Welz, managing director of Strauss & Co as dollar signs streamed through his double-lidded, megalomaniacal reptilian eyes.
On at least one count, they’re probably right; Peffers didn’t have to go all the way back to Caravaggio to illustrate a violent man who is a famous artist. Why not use Carl Andre, for example, who murdered his artist wife Ana Mendieta by pushing her off of a balcony in 1985. Andre was tried without a jury, his bail paid for by rich minimalist male artists, and the court agreed for the papers detailing his acquittal to be sealed from the public indefinitely.
“There were too many things that were just not right about the trial,” says the feminist writer and academic B Ruby Rich − “not least the cynical way in which his lawyers tried to use her art to back up the suggestion that she committed suicide. Many powerful figures in the New York art world colluded in that.”
A neat pile of Andre’s bricks recently sold for millions of dollars. His work is part of the permanent collection in the Tate Gallery in London. At Mendieta’s first retrospective in the UK recently, the Hayward Gallery made no mention of how she died, not even the usual description of her “falling to her death” with only her husband, covered in scratch marks, nearby.
Back in Cape Town, one well-known young artist told me he had been warned about “talking about Zwelethu” if he wanted to keep his career safe. Last Year Charl Blignaut and Biénne Huisman wrote in City Press that “more than one artist said they had been warned to distance themselves from the murder and not jeopardise their gallery connections”.
The point is that it is not incidental that famous men in the arts are permitted, even expected, to commit acts of violence against women. From Charles Saatchi throttling his wife, Nigella Lawson, to Roman Polanski violently raping a young teenager, the very structure of the art market, which is also the matrix of the genius, is produced and reproduced so as to protect and to valorise male artists – the Oedipal teleology of art history, which requires only the singular, ‘objective’ masculinist narrative.
Though here it is not the father who dies, but rather daddy who pays for your bail, for your silence, for your career to remain unscathed. The father and the brother and their currency will rally around the phallic ‘truth to material’, the distance from the act, the failure of the artwork to relate to a corporeal body, the death of the author instrumentalised to hide the real deaths at his hands.
We have always known that the art world is corrupt, sexist, violent, has nothing to do with any kind of idealist aspirations towards meaning, radicalism, real politics. Except there’s this thing in South Africa, where we do believe in artists, particularly in a group of struggle artists that includes Mthethwa, who believed in a real politics, who did real work, who fought and sometimes lost. Perhaps this is also why no one wants to talk about Mthethwa, about the fact that the form the South African art market − its exhibition mechanisms, its real material structure propped up by critics, gallerists, collectors and artists − is one in which the beating and kicking of a woman to death is blithely discussed in terms of the commodity form of ‘value’. And of cash, which, more than Andre’s bricks, is still the ultimate abstraction.
In an article in the Mail & Guardian in August last year, Sean O’ Toole wrote:
“Things have, by all accounts, continued as normal for the artist since his arrest and formal charge. He has watched videos and met with friends for drinks. ‘We spoke mainly about art and the business of art,’ one associate offered” (acting as if they are separable entities).
Mthethwa is represented by Everard Read in Johannesburg, Brundyn and Gonsalves in Cape Town, and Jack Shaiman in New York
NOTE: This article was edited on August 22nd on the request of ArtThrob’s assertion that they have not been aggressive on this matter. The author would prefer for this kind of argument not to cloud or dominate discourse around this case, which is about misogyny, the justice system and the corruption and complicity of the artworld in violence against women.