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Outrage over Our Lady exhibition

2017-01-15 09:23
Our Lady

Johannesburg - Mounting pressure from artists, curators, feminist groups and equal-rights organisations escalated this week as more than 500 signatures were added to two separate petitions, demanding that the Iziko South African National Gallery immediately change a controversial exhibition.

The Cape Town-based gallery’s latest exhibition, called Our Lady, has faced a major backlash since its opening in mid-December.

In both petitions it is stated that the problems are many, but central to signatories’ concerns is the “highly objectionable” curatorial objective. One of the petitions, drafted by some of the artists themselves, demands that the work of some female artists included in the exhibition be removed entirely, in response to what signatories say is the “obvious” issue that “75% of the artists included in the exhibition are men”.

Seven of the 27 artists are women.

The female artists included in the exhibition who drafted the petition include Penny Siopis, Bridget Baker, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Khanyisile Mbongwa, Deborah Poynton and Tracey Rose.

Their concerns echo a larger public outcry that played out last week on the steps of the gallery. Artists as well as lobbyists from organisations such as the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce – better known as Sweat – and Sisonke National Sex Workers’ Movement of SA expressed their outrage at the inclusion of a work by Zwelethu Mthethwa, who is on trial for the 2013 murder of sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in Woodstock in Cape Town. His trial resumes in March.

In addition to requesting that their works be removed, the artists demand that the exhibition be “radically restructured”. They also want the letters and statements made by Iziko and New Church Museum gallery – which lent work to the exhibition – explaining the purpose of setting up Our Lady and giving context to each artwork, to be displayed in the spaces where the removed artworks hang.

After the public outcry, New Church Museum, headed by curator Kirsty Cockerill, withdrew all the works it loaned to Iziko for the Our Lady exhibition.

Cockerill told City Press that the works were removed after a “breakdown of joint decision making” between the museum and Iziko. “The ideological hypocrisy apparent in the behaviour of the artists who demanded the removal of their work was staggering,” Cockerill said of the recent petitions and panel discussions which took place around the exhibition.

“‘Take down Zwelethu’s work or take down mine’ was the level of the discussion,” she said.

“One artist, who expressed moral outrage at the inclusion of her work in this exhibition alongside Mthethwa’s work, to our knowledge, did not object to the inclusion of her work alongside Mthethwa’s in the exhibition Home Truths, which directly preceded Our Lady at Iziko and is currently on display at Sanlam Art Gallery in Bellville. And, other artists who have been vocal in criticising Our Lady are currently included in Home Truths.”

Cockerill added that “individuals using the rhetoric of activism and intimidation have assumed the right to speak for others, oppressing differing viewpoints and open debate.

“Those within the art community, who have called for or accepted the censorship of this exhibition, have set a dangerous precedent. If you demand the censorship of what you consider unacceptable today, you leave yourself open for views and opinions that you cherish ending up deemed unacceptable tomorrow.”

Cockerill said the museum stood by its decision to include Mthethwa’s work in the exhibition. “We do not regret our decision ... We do, however, regret the unintended hurt caused by the inclusion. We regret that the public programme – comprising panel discussions, a guest lecture series and performances – proposed by New Church Museum was sacrificed when the show was censored.”

In its latest statement, Iziko said in response to the artists and lobby groups, a restructuring of the exhibition was under way.

But, added Iziko chief executive Rooksana Omar, “your demands for further immediate action are rather premature, given the internal processes ... that must be followed to render any action viable with a multifaceted institution like Iziko”.

The requests, she said, were “operationally unfeasable”.

“While we support the aims of Sweat and Sisonke, and are in the process of building long-term working relationships with them around other projects on gender-based violence and patriarchy, [Iziko] cannot be seen as a lobby group for a particular group or institution. Our mandate is to represent all layers of our society.

“We also strongly believe that Sweat and Sisonke are fully capable of speaking for themselves, and that any programmes we engage in jointly should be led and guided by these organisations, instead of being mediated by others,” Omar said.

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