Is it OK for art to imitate life?
The mixture of art and sex is something that is as old as it is controversial. From cave paintings and Michelangelo’s David to an artist seeking to show the disconnectedness of our world by having anonymous sex with 365 strangers, sex has always been a part of art.
It would make sense in a South African context that sexual assault should be an idea explored through the medium.
Playwright Tsepo wa Mamatu took the connection a little too far after being embroiled in a host of sexual assault allegations that saw the University of the Witwatersrand expel him as a drama lecturer in 2013.
Trouble always comes in waves. This scandal has found him again left out in the artistic cold as his play By My Grave was removed from the inaugural Cape Town Fringe Festival, which is linked to the National Arts Festival, after about 70 artists objected vociferously to his inclusion in the festival. The members of one play dealing with rape, Walk: South Africa, even threatened to pull out of the festival.
Wa Mamatu issued an apology, which came after a year of denial and his exclusion from the festival. It was put on Facebook, on a platform where none of his victims have engaged with him to call into question its authenticity.
In it, he said that he had gone on a journey of “self-exile” that had been difficult. He apologised for “abusing” his power and acknowledged that he lacked “moral clout”.
Apologies aside, being a talented “sex pest” is bound to raise debate.
Some have argued that he needs to be held accountable for what he did. Many (especially men) believe his actions should be separated from what they term is his “exceptional” work. Others have admitted that, although they despise the man, had the play been shown at the festival they would have been among the first to buy a ticket to see it.
So, this poses a question asked in Absolutely Fabulous: “But is it art, darling?”
The inclusion of Wa Mamatu in the festival raised hell because of what had previously transpired, and because his piece was an autobiographical work about sexual harassment. Some accused him of having “a cathartic experience all over everyone”, which they said he should not be allowed to do.
He hit out that the festival directors had “known about his past” and that this should be separated from his professional life.
Unfortunately for Wa Matamu, his professional life is his personal life. The sexual allegations came from his work as an artist and as a senior lecturer in the university’s drama department.
There are many people who mess up personally and have paid for it professionally, and not all justifiably. I shall forever argue that Tiger Woods should not have fallen as the world number one just because his idea of cardio was sleeping with women who were not his wife.
If he could play golf, he could play golf; we were not watching the PGA Tour for his marital skills. Nonetheless, he was forced to take some time off from golf and, frankly, he has never recovered.
There is sometimes a need to separate a person’s professional life from their personal life. One can be sure that there are a number of things that would get quite a few people fired from their “average Joe” jobs if their bosses knew how they spent their weekends and judged them on it. The difference, however, between that and the case of Wa Mamatu is twofold.
First, his actions brought direct harm to a number of other parties and the allegations are serious. Sexual assault is a different ball game to infidelity because there is a victim. Second, he directly used his position within his profession to carry out this personal harm.
One allegation had him using an alcoholic student as a pimp by offering him drinks in exchange for connecting him with female students. Another had a student attempting suicide after being made to strip during rehearsals. This goes far beyond the realm of sexual trysts and into something dangerous, dark and destructive.
Fear lay at the core of all these interactions. According to one of his ex-students, those affected by his actions had not attended a sexual harassment dialogue at Wits out of fear. In the words of one woman: “To allow him to continue professionally is like opening up a whole new crop of girls for him to [potentially] abuse.”
This is an idea with which I agree. To allow Wa Mamatu to continue to operate within these spaces is to potentially put others at risk through collective silence.
Separating the personal and the professional is sometimes difficult as the two can often interlink. However, when someone uses their profession to cause personal harm, then they do need to be called out on it and placed in check.
In this case, it is not art.
Tiffany Mugo is a founder and curator of the pan-Africanist womanist website, HOLAAfrica!.