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To: Iziko Museums, the Iziko South African National Gallery and The New Church Museum

The national art gallery must respect women's lives

Iziko Museum responded to our campaign, but decided not to act. This is disappointing, and shows the need to continue our work in holding public institutions to account. Here is their statement in full

Dear Iziko South African National Gallery and The New Church Museum
• We urge that the organisers of the art exhibition Our Lady act swiftly and meaningfully in response to the anger and hurt that has been expressed via protests, demands and proposals that have been put forward by an alliance of women artists, social justice groups SWEAT and Sisonke, and other citizens. We ask the Iziko South African National Gallery to radically restructure the exhibition, which was supposedly intended as a challenge to patriarchy, so that visitors to the museum can have access to the debate that has come about through protests of the exhibition
• We demand that the gallery make accessible, within the space of the exhibition, full and unmediated video documentation of the public meeting that took place at the gallery on 15 December 2016, so that all members of the public can hear and consider the compelling debate among artists, activists and others members of the public. In particular, this video explains why protests were prompted by the inclusion of work on Our Lady by Zwelethu Mthethwa, who is currently on trial for the violent murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo
• We demand that the collective letter of withdrawal submitted by six women artists to the National Gallery (requesting that their works be withdrawn from the exhibition), be displayed in place of each and every work by these artists which was removed from the walls of the gallery, due to this intervention
• We urge The New Church Museum, who contributed several works to the Our Lady exhibition on loan from their collection, to be accountable and offer a public statement explaining why they withdrew these works prematurely from the exhibition as public outrage around the exhibition grew. Public institutions should not be playgrounds for private interests
• We demand that the National Gallery clearly mark each and every space that formerly displayed works from the collection of The New Church Museum, ideally with a statement clarifying why this private collection withdrew the missing work

Why is this important?

The art exhibition Our Lady, currently on show at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town (and intended to be shown until June 2017) was conceived, according to the gallery, to “interrupt the typical traditional moral attitudes and male dominated stereotypes that surrounds imagery of the female form”. It contained works from the gallery’s public collection and also from the private collection of The New Church Museum.
However, as soon as the exhibition opened it was met with outrage.
Despite three (white) women having co-curated Our Lady, it is impossible to overlook the fact that 75% of the artists on show are men (the majority of which represent women through the staid conventional lens of patriarchy and are dead white men). South Africa has no shortage of artists who critically reflect on gender in their practice. Instead, the perspectives of women, trans and non-binary artists are heinously under-represented. Of the 27 artists on show, a mere seven are women.
Considerably more shocking is the fact that only three black women were 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 that reflects the lived reality of South Africa.
Furthermore, many are outraged by the curators’ decision to include the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, who 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.
Adding insult, the chosen work by Mthethwa is a portrait of a black woman, who the artist chooses to treat as anonymous. The inclusion of a photograph of an unnamed black woman by Mthethwa reiterates a dominant tendency in our culture; 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. It tacitly participates in the broader erasure of the voices of black women from our national narrative – and in our national gallery at that.
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.
For all of these reasons, we stand in solidarity with SWEAT – the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce – who have strongly condemned the gallery for its decision to include Mthethwa’s artwork. 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.”
Just ahead of a public meeting about these issues The New Church Museum withdrew all of its work from the show, without offering an explanation. We believe that the public has a right to understand why a private collection has elected to silently withdraw a series of loaned works that had been committed to an exhibition in a national institution until June 2017. Public institutions should not be playgrounds for private interests.
Many strong voices resonated during the intense public meeting that was hosted at the gallery on 15 December 2016.
In addition to public statements made by representatives of the gallery and the New Church Museum, an open letter that was signed by all of the (living) women artists represented on Our Lady was read aloud. This collective letter demanded that all works made by its signatories be immediately withdrawn from Our Lady, as a gesture of protest against the exhibition.
We were heartened by the hasty response of the National Gallery, in the form of a media statement that acknowledges that it is crucial for public institutions to remain flexible and responsive to their constituencies. The statement articulates the National Gallery’s commitment to continuing the important conversation around Our Lady, and its sincere intention to reconfigure the exhibition in the early days of January 2017. We embrace this positive momentum and continue to believe that it is possible to radically transform Our Lady to address the rampant violence that is directed against women and others who are marginalised in our culture can be compellingly communicated.
However, the gallery has not clearly indicated in the exhibition space why there are so many white walls missing work and why there has been a public outcry around the show’s curation and the inclusion of work by Mthethwa. A powerful debate languishes at the skirts of Our Lady. Due to the current state of the exhibition, this debate remains inaccessible to most museum visitors. As the National Gallery decides on the curatorial steps that it will take in order to render the ongoing debate accessible to the broader public, we ask the institution to make bold decisions that will allow the voices of the protesting artists and activists to resonate accessibly and meaningfully in the public space that the exhibition occupies.
We view the Iziko South African National Gallery as an ally and a partner, but also as an institution that is charged with the weighty responsibility of attending to and redressing the radical social inequity that continues to characterise South African society. 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 ask the National Gallery to move swiftly to radically reconfigure Our Lady so as to bring the ongoing debate that it has unleashed to voice.


2017-02-28 16:22:35 +0200

Exhibition aimed at empowering women does everything but, Ground Up

2017-02-28 16:21:21 +0200

Outrage over Our Lady exhibition by Garreth Van Niekerk-

2017-02-28 16:20:38 +0200

Iziko criticised for using art of murder accused Zwelethu Mthethwa, Ground Up

2017-01-11 13:09:56 +0200

100 signatures reached

2017-01-10 17:53:12 +0200

50 signatures reached

2017-01-10 13:00:08 +0200

25 signatures reached

2017-01-10 12:03:57 +0200

10 signatures reached