Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Let artists loose on our historical artefacts

Doung Anwar Jahangeer's intervention with
a statue in Grahamstown in 2012

During the National Arts Festival in 2012 a number of statues in Grahamstown were toppled. Figuratively speaking, that is - statues are to some degree immovable. They are built to be so and they function as symbols of power due to this characteristic. Nevertheless, as the students involved in the #rhodesmustfall campaign at University of Cape Town have discovered, there are ways of destabilising their symbolic significance without uprooting them.

It is not really coincidental that two artistic interventions with statues evoking our past took place in Grahamstown in 2012. This small university town is bedevilled with monuments and as such wears its skewed or incomplete, shall we say, history on its sleeve. This is why so much of the site-specific work conceived for the festival centres on disinterring this partiality such as Mikhael Subotsky’s Moses and Griffiths film, through the narratives presented by Sokuyeka and Moses Lamani, or the act of monumentalising itself – something that Donna Kukama tackled last year by burying dozens of small personalised monuments around the town in an effort to 'democratise' the act of remembrance. 

But it is the 2012 performance by artist Athi-Patra Ruga and artist/architect Doung Anwar Jahangeer that I’m particularly interested in, in relation to the #rhodesmustfall phenomenon. These two artists created works which de facto involved ‘de-facing’ two statues that celebrated aspects tied to the colonial and apartheid eras. Ruga’s White Woman of Azania performance, concluded with a solo procession which began in a nearby township and ended in the centre of Grahamstown, in front of a statue of an Angel on the High Street, which was constructed to commemorate “the brave men of Albany who died for the empire during the Anglo Boer War.” It was at this location that he burst his ballooned costume, spraying the statue with black paint, covering parts of its base.

Jahangeer directed his artistic intervention to a statue titled The Settler Family (created in 1969) nearby the 1820 Settler Monument, a brutal architectural structure on top of an imposing mountain overlooking the small town. He ground earth in a bowl in the manner of a Zulu custom and smeared the bright orange dust onto the faces of the three figures - the titular family.

Of course, when artists create a work involving adding to or detracting from a public effigy it is termed an “intervention” not defacement, perhaps because it is the result of a more considered action or because statues in this context become the medium so to speak – the canvas on which they project their statement against the very entity that provides it. Artists are accustomed to working with seemingly immovable histories – they are haunted by their predecessors to such a degree that most art is the result of undoing the legacies that define it. Art is protest against art itself. And given that the offending Cecil Rhodes statue at UCT  is an artwork – though not a very exciting one – it seems that it would be quite suitably cannabalised by artists.

Artists are ideally positioned to tackle history – not only its invisible manifestations that escape the pages of books but its symbolic legacy that lives on in immovable architectural entities such as buildings, public art and statues. And certainly, this week a number of commentators seemed to be calling for an artistic intervention. One such commentator, who identified himself as a coloured man (feeling that his racial identity was significant in terms of his response) suggested that removing the Cecil Rhodes Statue that has been driving the #rhodesmustfall campaign, would not erase this colonial leader’s actions or legacy but would do the reverse – conceal it.
 
Athi-Patra Ruga en route to the High Street in Grahamstown where
he concluded a performance at a statue which he 'defaced'
Of course, you could argue that Rhodes’ heroic stance (the manner in which his likeness has been rendered) and the pride of place the statue enjoys on the university’s campus doesn’t exactly draw attention to his shameful legacy, which the politics around the lack of transformation at UCT appears to imply somehow echoes in the present.

This indirect call for an artistic intervention was echoed by a number of commentators who didn’t support Rhodes but wanted to see the statue preserved. Alterations were required it seemed; either in its placement or the context in which it is displayed. This not only drew attention to the ways in which an artistic intervention is required, but points to how more artists might be able to articulate the silence surrounding these colonial effigies or devise alternative rituals to achieve this.

The debacle around the Rhodes statue might be linked to what it represents about this historical figure and his place in our history but it is also due to the history it obscures – a painful, violent one that led to the annihilation and exploitation of South Africans, our ancestors.  In other words it is not always necessarily what the statue represents that irks, but what it doesn’t. As a result removing it from the public eye might not rectify the error or fault it now represents, or this may only partially achieve this.

If we intend to expand our critical gaze we will find many cultural artefacts that communicate a celebration of exploitation or at least obscures it. For this reason it is worth considering what approach we should take and whether artists would be suitable for the job, renewing the central role they have played in our society’s sociopolitical life.  

The results might be unexpected and cathartic. Ruga and Jahangeer for example embraced quite different approaches.  Ruga referred to his public intervention with a statue as part of a “purge”. Releasing the black liquid inside the balloons over this supposedly triumphant angelic figure, produced a metaphoric release, which fortunately did not carry the stench of faeces. It is a ritual he enacts in different hallowed places – such as in galleries too. Ultimately, Ruga’s artistic rituals are conceived to satisfy his own release from the past, the present even, but in the wake of the #rhodesmustfall it is clear that they resonate with many South Africans who perhaps are itching for this kind of “cleansing” to be publicly enacted.

Jahangeer opted for a what he termed “a more peaceful” gesture – he was not interested in defacement or a seemingly violent rejection of the subjects. Instead  his work was centred on trying to  “welcome the Settler family home,” he said in a video documenting his work. It is significant that the 'defacement' that Jahangeer or Ruga enacted on the statues was supported by a performance. As such it it is not only an intervention with the statue that is powerful but the acts surrounding it that give it importance.  

It is interesting that neither artist opted for erasure or (complete) destruction of the statues – possibly because they wanted to avoid arrest – but also due to a recognition that erasure would not necessarily bring a sense of ‘relief’ or release that their unconventional rituals were designed to achieve. Jahngeer suggested that doing so would “force(s) us to negate where we are coming from.”

It may well be the deafening ‘silence’, the repressed histories, that the Rhodes statue and others like it now symbolise that prompts many to demand their removal. Obliterating statues might not bring these histories, or the legacy they have in the present, fully into view and might rob artists of the opportunity to discover different kinds of rituals to counter the silence they embody.

Of course, in allowing artists to enact a disavowal of the past, we are also clearing a path for them to question and challenge powerful authorities and dominant narratives, even the patrons of art itself, which is possibly a road our current government might not want them to explore. - an edited version of this was first published in The Sunday Independent, March 29, 2015