Exhibition under Attack

Why “Our Lady” Sparks Protests

In response to the Our Lady exhibition in Cape Town, our author Joan Legalamitlwa pays tribute to Nokuphila Kumalo, the late young woman who was brutally murdered one early morning in 2013...

Why “Our Lady” Sparks Protests

Photo of protesters in white masks. Photo by SWEAT

By Joan Legalamitlwa

Our lady, who art to be in heaven

Because here on earth, is where you experienced your hell

A type of profession that knows no respect

The kind of death that knows no dignity

A kind of commemoration that knows no consideration?

This is a poem I just made up as an ode to the late young female who was brutally murdered one early morning in 2013, beat up by some man on the side of a street in Woodstock, Cape Town. Her name was Nokuphila Kumalo, an alleged sex worker. The name of the alleged murderer is Zwelethu Mthethwa, a renowned South African artist. Zwelethu Mthethwa is currently out on bail and has pleaded not guilty to the murder, even though existing CCTV footage shows someone that could be him enacting the brutal violence that eventually led to Nokuphila Khumalo’s passing.

Nokuphila is a Xhosa name which means ‘the mother of life’. Who would have thought that someone with such a powerful and dignified name would have their life cut short so abruptly and in such an undignified manner? And what memory of that short life has been left here, in the land of the living? Is it enough just to remember her as a destitute township girl who died on the job while making a living as a lady of the night? Everyone is born of someone. Everyone has a past and there are many chapters within that past, some good and some bad. Everyone matters to someone. I often wonder what was said about her at her ‘memorial’ service, what memories loved ones have of her.

It’s a funny thing this ‘memory’ thing. It is alleged that the accused murderer has no recollection of the said night’s activities as he was in an altered state of being, i.e. inebriated. It is also funny that the accused murderer happens to make a living through photography, recording people’s living memories. A Google search of Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photography comes up with mainly portraitures of Black South Africans living in what I would like to call conditions of ‘glamourized poverty’. Striking images full of color and elaborate compositions with an aesthetic appeal. The people contained in these images most likely consent to being pictured because they also want a piece of their lives to be acknowledged and remembered. One such image by Zwelethu Mthethwa was included as part of the exhibition Our Lady at the Iziko South African National Gallery. This has sparked protests both from fellow artists, particularly female artists, as well as sex worker and gender activists. I wonder if this is the kind of legacy that Nokuphila wanted to leave behind…

This piece aims to contextualise the strong wave of protests expressed against the Our Lady exhibition at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. You can find two open letters written by a global network of female cultural producers and gender activists as follows:




Joan Legalamitlwa is an independent arts and film curator based in Mafikeng, South Africa. She is a cultural and literary studies graduate from the University of Cape Town and former director of the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. 



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