Artist Hopes Portrait Will Haunt Police

By Ashraf Hendricks | A life-sized portrait has been placed near the police station where a sex worker died in custody

On 9 April, sex worker and activist Robyn Montsumi was arrested on a drug charge and held at the Mowbray police station. A few days later she died in police custody. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is investigating what is allegedly a suicide by hanging. Sex worker advocacy groups are demanding an update on the investigation. SWEAT has also referred the case to the South African Human Rights Commission.

  • Robyn Montsumi died in police custody in April 2020.
  • Artist Clinton Osbourn has placed a life-sized portrait of Montsumi on a pole near Mowbray police station where she died.
  • IPID is investigating if Montsumi committed suicide.
  • Sex worker advocacy groups want to know what has happened with the investigation.

To raise awareness, artist Clinton Osbourn on Tuesday made a life-sized portrait of Mastumi in wax crayon, laminated it and put it up on a pole near to the Mowbray police station.

Osbourn says he was haunted by Matsumi’s death. “I wanted to make some kind of statement,” he says. “There have been no consequences … Somebody is responsible, but nobody is being held responsible.”

Matsumi is pointing at the police station and has a speech bubble with: “My name is Robyn Montsumi. I died in the Mowbray police station on 12 April. My family, my friends and my partner deserve to know the truth about what happened to me. I deserve justice”.

“They [police] need to know that there are people that are watching them,” he said.

Even though Osbourn expects police will take the artwork down, he says he felt a sense of relief once it was put up.

Constance Mathe, co-ordinator at the Asijiki Coalition (a group advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work) and a friend of Matsumi, says the portrait is a beautiful likeness.

Matsumi, she says, was a kind and caring person and a “peacemaker”, one of the founders of the LGBTIQ+ sex worker movement at the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task force (SWEAT).

Like many people in her community, Mathe does not believe it was a suicide. She says Matsumi was in the police cell “many times”. Since her death, a number of memorials and protests have been held outside the police station. She hopes the picture stays up “as a memory”.

Osbourn, who is an employee at SWEAT and has a history of art activism including having worked at Young in Prison, has made collaborative comic books and is a member of Kollektivo Illuminoso Fresco, an art collective.