Art and Design

Zwelethu Mthethwa: Scandal in Bohemia

Sean O'Toole

Next week, prominent South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa will appear in court to defend himself against allegations of murder.

Zwelethu Mthethwa at a recent exhibition. (Leon Lestrade)

It is a nondescript place to die. On Saturday, April 13, Noku­phila Kumalo (23) was fatally assaulted outside the Tollgate Industrial Centre, a multilevel commercial space in the working-class Cape Town suburb of Woodstock.

It is alleged that Zwelethu Mthethwa (52), a tall, self-assured photographer – fêted internationally for his large-scale portraits of impoverished shack-dwellers and KZN cane workers – repeatedly beat, then kicked Kumalo, causing her death. Currently on bail, Mthethwa, who denies the charge, is due in court on August 26. His legal counsel is crack defence lawyer William Booth.

The story of Kumalo's murder passed without notice in April. News of the alleged sex worker's death only surfaced in mid-June when Die Burger reported that Mthethwa had been arrested – on May 5, nearly a month after the incident. He had been abroad in the interim.

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.

For Cape Town's small, gossip-inclined art community, the charge has been the source of speculation and self-aggrandising exaggeration. The Mthethwa case – a kind of scandal in Bohemia – is routinely likened to that of Oscar Pistorius.

For the most part, Mthethwa, who is part of a generation of local artists who gained international prominence in the late 1990s, has had a far easier ride in the local media. Through his lawyer, her denied the charges and declined to speak to the media. Internationally, the murder charge has barely registered. Underpinning the silence is a widespread incredulity.

"Was he set up?" wondered a curator who has worked with the artist. "Does he have enemies?" Another spoke of "mitigating circumstance", a dubious line of reasoning –Mthethwa's case is still to be heard – that is matched by similarly pre-emptive arguments offering that it was a "crime of passion".

Collectible medium
Also invoked in these trials by cappuccino are the biographies of artists such as Caravaggio, the Italian painter who murdered a man in 1606, and Carl Andre, the American minimalist artist who successfully defended a murder charge in 1988 following the death of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta.

"I find it hard to believe," said Estelle Jacobs, a former director of the AVA Gallery in Cape Town who knew the artist when he was still a salaried employee at Truworths making art in his spare time.

Born in Durban in 1960, Mthethwa moved to Cape Town to study at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, receiving his postgraduate advanced diploma in 1985.

"Documentary photography was a strength at the school at the time, and he produced a rather remarkable body of photographs, mainly taken in Crossroads," said Pippa Skotnes, a professor at the school.

Mthethwa presented the first of many solo shows at the AVA Gallery in 1986. Although the gallery, then called the Association of Arts, occasionally showed his photographs, it was his vivid pastel drawings that gained traction in a local market that still shuns photography as a collectible medium.

Hardly ever remarked upon abroad, his pastels are a mix of excoriating self-portraiture and township-based social scenes. This figurative work inhabits a space between the sombreness of Gerard Sekoto's pre-exile work from the mid-1940s and the exaggerated cheer of Tommy Motswai's township scenes from the 1980s.

This pastel work is also far more biographically resonant. In a work shown at the Everard Read Gallery in 2006 Mthethwa portrayed his teenage daughter from a relationship with a woman now living in England. He spoke sadly of their estrangement at a walkabout.

Colour darkrooms
In 1987 Mthethwa, enabled by a Fulbright Scholarship, enrolled for a master's degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), New York. The school, based near Kodak's headquarters, had a decisive impact on his practice.

"When I studied at Michaelis they did not have colour facilities," Mthethwa explained in a 2004 interview. "At RIT we had 22 colour darkrooms." His first experiments with colour lodged an insight.

"When I looked at my work that I shot before I went to the United States, work I had started in 1984 already, I was shocked. My work seemed to perpetuate the myth that poor people are miserable and down-and-out."

Mthethwa's decisive shift to colour has become a way of theorising aesthetics in post-apartheid South Africa. Colour dignifies, goes the argument.

According to art historian John Peffer, author of Art and the End of Apartheid (2009), this colour theory, repeated in Mthethwa's 2010 self-titled monograph, is historically inaccurate. Many photographers linked to Afrapix, the nonracial anti-apartheid photography collective that included David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng, used colour. "They didn't make a big deal of it."

Peffer also points to deceased Cape Town photographer Ronnie Leviton's vivid studies of shack interiors as a key precursor to Mthethwa's more famous work, which he began working on after graduating from RIT in 1989. It was with the help of a friend and collaborator, artist Willie Bester, that Mthethwa produced his first portraits of Eastern Cape migrants living in Langalabuya, an informal settlement near Paarl.

Charismatic guy
These quiet and dignified portraits caught the eye of Marilyn Martin, then director of the National Gallery. An early champion of Mthethwa's photography, her museum initially bought only his pastel work. In 1991 the museum acquired two drawings; 11 years later it bought a photo from his Empty Beds series, which documents migrant worker lodgings, lending these impoverished spaces dignity.

Described by Jacobs as a "charismatic guy" who "through osmosis built up a client base for his pastels", in 1995 Mthethwa joined Michaelis as a senior lecturer. It was here that he met artist Bongi Bengu. The pair married in December 1986. The marriage lasted two years.

"Please don't drag me back there," requested Bengu, whose name is routinely invoked as shorthand for addressing Mthethwa's unpredictable temperament. Variously described as "charismatic", "amicable", "warm" and an influential en-abler, he is just as often characterised as "intransigent" and bad-tempered.  

Artist Beezy Bailey, one of numerous professional collaborators who have included Sam Nhlengethwa and Louis Janse van Vuuren, said he had a "fuse the length of a centimetre". The pair, friends for 15 years, fell out in January when Bailey posted a photograph of Mthethwa's new Porsche on Facebook after a luncheon.

In 1999, with his international career taking off, Mthethwa resigned his post at Michaelis. Essayist and academic Ashraf Jamal met Mthethwa at this time.

"What struck me forcefully was his smile, that irradiated glow which emanated from him, and what I saw as an infinitely gentle spirit," said Jamal. "He restored a pop sensibility to township life. He gave it an otherworldly glow, amplified that world, ennobled it.

Financial irregularities
"Of course, one could also argue that he misrepresented that township world in his bid to spectacularise the ordinary, though here I would disagree."

The dignity Mthethwa's photos lend to his often impoverished subjects underscores the shock of the murder charge. This charge, whether substantiated or not, unavoidably focuses attention on the artist, a reserved and principled man who withdrew from the 2011 Venice Biennale because of concerns about financial irregularities.

At the same time, Mthethwa is a dandy known for his luxurious tastes. In a sense, Cape Town is an ideal city for him – but also not. "He told me that in Cape Town he knows he is black, because he is reminded of this fact everyday," said a black colleague about Mthethwa's decision to live there.

This insight keys into the latent contradictions that underpin Mthethwa's success. His pastels are traded in a parochial domestic market still in love with cheery portrayals of township life. His more experimental photos, including those focusing on black masculinity and architecture, are largely overlooked.

"He is expected to perform blackness," said Peffer of the awkward role foisted on Mthethwa, especially by the US art market. "He may be stuck in the slot of representing black life and poverty, but there are worse selling-out points. He is not selling a freak-form image of Africa like Pieter Hugo, which for me is a much more serious problem."

None of which directly addresses the allegation facing Mthethwa, a man free of economic worry, for now, but also unavoidably bound to deprivation as a source of wealth and acclaim. There is also the untold story of Nokuphila Kumalo, who may yet gain a voice, not on a gallery wall but in a courtroom.

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