Zwelethu Mthethwa received special permission to study art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, at a time when studies were for whites only. He began as a painter, later turning to photography and becoming prominent among the generation of post-apartheid photographers, who have been documenting the new South Africa and its changes from various aspects and in different modes.
In certain ways, Mthethwa’s photographs exist in a well-known tradition of portraiture, in which the subjects stare at the camera, aware of its existence and holding a reciprocal relationship with the photographer. Whether these are women alongside their trousseau boxes, laborers in a sugar cane fields, work migrants in their rooms or boys against a background of rubbish heaps—all the photographed subjects are granted the status of respectable individuals, irrespective of the poverty and wretchedness of their lives. Their portraits raise psychological and gender issues, in addition to questions of class.
The series “The Brave Ones” follows youths from the Nazareth Baptist Church, established in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe, a self-styled prophet. Shembe’s first congregation came from desperately poor Zulu immigrants; however, by the time of his death in 1935, his church was considered the largest Africa-initiated church.
Twice a year, children and youths aged six to twenty are sent to the countryside for a month, during which they undergo an initiation rite from youth to adulthood. They wear the Church’s uniform, which includes tartan kilt-like skirts, buttoned-up white shirts, ties, sport shoes, soccer knee-high socks and head decorations. This unusual mix of feminine and masculine apparel, taken from different worlds of fashion and culture, create a unique look whose main quality is hybridism: masculine/feminine, festive/mundane, African/western.
This month-long nature retreat takes place near Durban, Mthethwa’s birthplace, yet it took him a long time to acquire the youths’ confidence and be allowed to photograph them. Indeed, he gazes at them from the outside, belonging and not belonging, all the while illuminating one of the central characteristics of photography in Africa: it seems that everything that stands in front of the camera is doomed to become exotic, that the very act of photography, essentially western, comprises a colonialist element even if the camera is held by a native, black African. The boundaries between the foreign and the local, the exotic and the habitual, melt; African photography in the post-colonial era has its own rules.
On Thursday, 16 March 2017, a court in Cape Town, South Africa, found Zwelethu Mthethwa guilty of murdering sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in April 2013.
In view of this conviction, the Museum faces a moral and fundamental dilemma: can the artist and the art be detached? And subsequent questions: what about the works in the exhibition, now that the man who made them has been declared a murderer? Is leaving the works on the wall some kind of support of the murderer artist? Should the photographs be removed from the wall, with the claim that the artist’s work cannot be detached from his biography? And would such an act not be rather self-righteous, a slight clearing of the conscience?
This has been one of the most complex and difficult decisions the Museum has had to make in recent years. Despite our deep revulsion at Mthethwa’s crime, we have decided to leave the photographs on the wall for the duration of the exhibition, yet to inform the viewers of the unusual circumstances attending them.
The Museum would like to use this opportunity, arising from the unprecedented situation, to raise a public debate about moral questions that are indeed open and not at all unequivocal. The ethics of art is up for discussion here, and a careful examination of the relation between a work of art and the artist. We will be holding a symposium dealing with the complex issues arising from this case.
It is our hope that the viewers accept our decision with understanding, and consider this moral query together with all the other political and other issues that the exhibition raises.