Bringing together a selection of artworks from the permanent collections of Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG) and the New Church Museum, Our Lady reflects on the evolving canon of artistic representations of women spanning more than 170 years. This exhibition highlights works of selected artists who employ different strategies when depicting the female subject. When we think of visual representations of women, we are often confronted with idealised, mythologised, sexualised or objectified images that are revealing of unequal gender relationships. Women’s bodies have been used as symbolic objects, embodying political, erotic or aesthetic ideals, rather than individual female subjects.
Far from promoting Zwelethu Mthetwa’s career, the inclusion of the artwork Untitled (from the Hope chest series) (2012) from the New Church Museum Collection has been included in Our Lady as an opportunity for critical engagement. It is contextualised within a theme of the exhibition that looks at portraits of ‘unnamed women’. The inherent brutality of denying a woman the right to her individuality and her name, by varying social constructs and systems, has been unpacked with the inclusion of five different artworks made over the course of many years by five different artists.
Untitled by Mthethwa forms part a photographic series entitled Hope Chest. The series explores the relationship between women and the chest she traditionally receives as the final wedding present from her family before she marries. Inside are the woman’s most prized possessions, which she takes with her to her new home. His unnamed subjects read as a typological series, suggestive of an anthropological approach to documenting the ‘other’. This type of photographic approach has received broad criticism by many who view it as a violent approach to portraying the subject as a type rather than an individual.
There was extensive discussions and open engagement between the curators at the ISANG and New Church Museum about the ramifications around the artwork’s inclusion in the exhibition. Not including this work and avoiding the difficult engagement associated with this artwork would have been easy, but it also would have been a betrayal of women everywhere.
The New Church Museum and the Iziko South African National Gallery (Iziko Museums of South Africa) are not prepared to pretend that the abuse of women does not happen, and hence the curators have critically assessed the work in question and welcome dialogue about what is happening within the constructs of the artwork’s ‘frame’, and what is happening outside the ’frame’.
The decision to include Mthethwa’s Untitled cannot be removed from the context of the exhibition, nor can it be overridden by the current events surrounding the alleged murder of Nokuphila Moudy Kumalo – for which the artist is currently standing trial. The curators do, however, recognise that the artist is currently standing trial for murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, a fact which will heighten the reading and reception of this work in particular.
The curators hope the exhibition will open broader dialogue about the pervasive role representations of women can play in determining societal attitudes toward women. Visual and verbal violence towards and about women are often significant markers of prevailing attitudes and ideas surrounding physical violence towards women. We cannot pretend that these problems do not exist or that artists are exempt from sexual violence towards women.
The inclusion of this work is by no means a cheap attempt at publicity. It is a rigorously considered and sincere attempt at transparency and engagement. Museums are places where we should feel the freedom and safety to have difficult conversations. We cannot remove the photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa as it would silence a much needed dialogue.
With the above sentiment in mind, it is important to note that to exhibit a work of art is not to endorse the work or the vision, actions, and opinions of the artist. It is to uphold the right of all to experience diverse visions and views. If and when controversies arise from the exhibition or a work of art, we welcome public discussion and debate with the belief that such discussion is integral to the experience of art.