Artist hopes life-sized portrait of dead sex worker will haunt the police

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Clinton Osbourn created a life-sized portrait of activist and sex worker Robyn Matsumi, who died in police custody at the Mowbray police station.
Clinton Osbourn created a life-sized portrait of activist and sex worker Robyn Matsumi, who died in police custody at the Mowbray police station.
PHOTO: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp
  • A life-sized portrait has been placed near the police station where a sex worker died in custody after she was arrested on a drug charge.
  • The Independent Police Investigative Directorate was investigating an alleged suicide by hanging.
  • "Somebody is responsible, but nobody is being held responsible," said artist Clinton Osbourn.

On 9 April, sex worker and activist Robyn Montsumi was arrested on a drug charge and held at the Mowbray police station in Cape Town. A few days later she died in police custody, GroundUp reported.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) was investigating an alleged suicide by hanging. Sex worker advocacy groups have demanded an update on the investigation.

The Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task force (SWEAT) had also referred the case to the South African Human Rights Commission.

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

Osbourn said he was haunted by Montsumi's death.

"I wanted to make some kind of statement," he said.

He said: 

There have been no consequences... Somebody is responsible, but nobody is being held responsible.

In the portrait, Montsumi points at the police station with a speech bubble that says: "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."

She was a 'peacemaker'

Osbourn said: "They (police) need to know that there are people that are watching them."

Even though Osbourn expected police would take the artwork down, he said 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 Montsumi's, said the portrait was a beautiful likeness.

Montsumi, she said, was a kind and caring person and a "peacemaker"; one of the founders of the LGBTIQ+ sex worker movement at SWEAT.

Like many people in her community, Mathe did not believe it was a suicide.

She said Montsumi was in police cells "many times".

Since her death, a number of memorials and protests had been held outside the police station. She hoped the picture stayed up "as a memory".

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

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