Sex workers’ advocacy group demands justice from leading art auction house

Joy Shan
Advocates from SWEAT chant in front of the office building of Strauss & Co. Photo by Joy Shan.
Joy Shan

Stephan Welz of art auction house Strauss & Co has apologised for suggesting that murder charges against artist Zwelethu Mthethwa might boost sales of his work.

Responding to a protest yesterday by Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) outside the Strauss & Co offices in Claremont, Welz said: “Given the wider context of the plague of violence in South Africa, particularly violence towards women and those vulnerable in our society. I see how my comments may have been deeply offensive. This was absolutely not my intention and I apologise unreservedly.

“Under no circumstances do I or any of my colleagues at Strauss & Co condone the actions of which Zwelethu Mthethwa has been accused. Violence of any kind is abhorrent to me and my deepest condolences go out to the family and community of the victim. I hope the full weight of our justice system will be brought to bear in this situation.”

Welz said the comments, published in Times Live, “were given in a very narrow context and I am sorry for the hurt that they have caused”.

He also apologised for not being present in person to speak to the demonstrators.

The article, published on 26 May, was about Zwelethu Mthethwa, the artist awaiting trial for the murder of a sex worker in April 2013. In the article Welz claimed that the accusations could stoke Mthethwa’s sales in the fine art market.

This comment by the auction house “glorifies an artist facing grave allegations” but “dehumanises the victim completely,” says Cherith Sanger, one of the protest’s organisers. Sanger and the other advocates from SWEAT believe that the art house’s statement, by focusing on Mthethwa’s art sales, reinforces the invisibility that already surrounds sex workers and their human rights.

Outside the gates of the building that houses Strauss & Co yesterday, the protesters danced and chanted, demanding that a company representative come out and speak to them. “Stop hiding behind your fancy offices!” they called. After less than half an hour, two police cars arrived, standing by as SWEAT continued to sing and chant. While many office employees hurried by to escape the rain, a few clusters of people stopped to watch, or to snap a picture with their smart phones. No representative from Strauss emerged.

Near the end of the protest, a Strauss employee was reached through the building’s intercom system. She refused to give her name, yielding only the company’s official response: no comment at the moment, but they would post a reply on the company Facebook page that evening.

After about two hours, the protesters climbed into the van to head back to the SWEAT office. Gulam Petersen, whose T-shirt read, “This is what a sex worker looks like,” was not satisfied with the way the protest ended. “If they were as powerful as they think, they’d come out and face us sex workers,” she said. Before the van door closed, the demonstrators shouted, “We’ll be back!”

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TOPICS:  Gender Human Rights

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