The removal of art at UCT: interview with Alex Dodd

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A total of 75 works of art have been removed since the fall of Cecil John Rhodes's statue at the University of Cape Town, most of them after the Shackville protest by students  in February during which paintings from a hostel were burnt.

The removals were done for a range of reasons, among which were concern for their safety, insurance, their isolation or the fact that they were close to other more controversial paintings, sites or plaques.

However, among these were ten works that were "prioritised" because students  in discussions with university authorities since the launch of the #RhodesMustFall movement had  identified them as works frequently mentioned among black students as causing offence when they encounter them on campus.

The 75 art works were identified by a special task team set up by the university council alongside other task teams (eg one on changing place names) to look into ways to advance decolonisation that would take into account the interests of all in the university community, also those of artists. Students are members of the committee.

The task team aims to submit a report by the middle of the year, and the works have been taken down on a strictly temporary basis until such time as a proper curatorial policy has been worked out for the whole university. However, it is also clear that much weight will be given to the opinions of students who take offence at certain works.

At this stage the ten works at issue remain unidentified. However, works of Breyten Breytenbach were removed because they were on loan from their owner and the university felt it had a "double curatorial responsibility" towards them.

In the case of some of the paintings the idea had initially been to return them to their places of display, but the university discovered it would incur extra costs that may turn out to be gratuitous should it be decided in the end that these paintings should be put up elsewhere or kept in storage for "non-political" reasons.

Here is the task team's motivation of its approach and actions:

Alex Dodd is an independent writer, editor and researcher. She talks to Hans Pienaar about the removal of art works at UCT.

Alex Dodd talk to Hans Pienaar about the removal of art works at the Unversity of Cape Town.

The University of Cape Town has had 75 artworks removed from the walls from some of its buildings. What was your immediate reaction to the news?

When it comes to matters that are fraught and contested, I steer away from acting on or expressing my immediate reactions in public. We live in a very reactive society, made more so by the immediacy of social media. Reactions tend to add heat to our problems rather than doing anything to solve them or shift them. My immediate reaction was probably the stereotypical one of shock and horror. My mind leapt instantly to the idea that this is a form of censorship – a defensive institutional reaction to the destruction of artworks that took place on campus earlier this year. And I must confess that having thought about it for some time, my opinion hasn’t shifted much in this instance. This seems like an ill-advised and reactionary gesture to me. Art is meant to open up dialogue and give voice to difficult, complex thoughts and feelings that cannot always be reduced to language. The visual is its own language – with its own grammar and syntax. And it allows us to say things that we can’t say in words. Removing these works strikes me as being a stifling and silencing act that shuts down difficult dialogue rather than creating an alternate channel for it. If these works are so difficult and challenging, then why couldn’t they be used in a productive way to generate dialogue and help people delve into our social wounds that are still so much in need of healing? If these works are so deeply provocative and problematic, I would have preferred to see the university curate a series of interventions that gave people the opportunity to voice publicly what they were reading in the works – to give words to the offence. When it comes to visual representation, what is one person’s transgression might be another person’s liberation. And hosting some open discussions around these artworks might have given people the opportunity to really talk in quite personal and direct ways about the politics that is rippling under our skins.

A few years ago I was commissioned to give a walkabout at the Joburg Art Fair. It was supposed to last for an hour, and ended up lasting about three. There was an amazing diversity of people on the tour and discussing the artworks in a personal and real way gave them an opportunity to connect emotionally and intellectually about things that matter to us all as South Africans or as citizens of the world somehow hooked into a South African state of mind. Artworks can serve as triggers for a very particular kind of engaged, embodied, socially attuned dialogue.

So you still think it is a case of censorship?

Yes, this does seem like a form of censorship to me, and I have always been a proponent of unlimited freedom of expression. That said, my experience writing an in-depth work of long-form journalism in response to the whole Spear debacle in 2012 taught me that when it comes to matters of racial wounding and hate speech a particular kind of sensitivity is called for. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words and images also have great power to bruise and bring up old psychic wounds. I am not based on campus, so it might be too easy for me simply label this “censorship” from the distance of my home office. I didn’t have my office fire-bombed, as Max Price did earlier this year. I didn’t witness the artworks being burnt to cinders as part of the Shackville protest in February. And I am not a curator of thousands of valuable books and art works – valuable not just in financial terms, but in cultural terms too. Whose culture, you might ask? And of course, that is the key question at stake here. The fury arises from a real and justified sense of exclusion that doesn’t apply just to the admissions policy of our universities, but to the entire symbolic and spatial architecture of our campuses, which are still drenched in colonial and apartheid resonance, which needs to be met, tempered, overhauled, written and spoken back at – written through with other narratives and tones. Even so, the archive exists, the buildings exist, and there is great value in being able to look back at the material artefacts that embody and narrate a one-sided history and read them against the grain for a fuller picture of the past – until, at least, a fuller and more dimensional archive has begun to take shape. Of course, that dimensionality is now long overdue and a matter of great urgency.

Should the offence taken by students, especially those who identify themselves as black, be taken into account when selecting paintings to be displayed in public places on South Africa's campuses?

Yes. Art is a two-way (or multidimensional) discussion. It’s not just about projecting outwards and spewing your content all over an absorptive field of neutral reception. (Masculine metaphor fully intended.) Well, it might once have been, but it is not anymore. It’s about the audience too, and the feelings and thoughts of the audience/participants should be taken into account. If you observe the ways in which contemporary museums and galleries are shifting, it is toward more dialogic, interactive, response-driven, programmatic modes of art which are driven by reception just as much as they are by creation. This diasporic, interactive mode is not confined to social media. It is the progressive philosophical thrust of our evolving world. In both political and cultural terms we are seeing a dethroning of authority and a movement away from individualist forms toward more collective modes of expression. So yes, people’s responses should be taken into account. But for me that doesn’t mean taking down the works. It means curating new platforms for discursive/visual/performative response and new sites of initiation.

The university's task team stated: "The Task Team notes that a number of commentators critical of the campus display practice have pointed out that many of the artworks are displayed in settings in which colonial-era architecture has a predominant, even saturating, presence. This is one of the many environmental factors that affect how the works are apprehended by the public that views them on a daily basis." Would you agree?

Yes; it cannot be denied that the University of Cape Town’s architecture is deeply colonial in feel. The university was built in an era when it was deemed appropriate and desirable to mimic Oxford and Cambridge Universities, right down to their ivy-covered walls. And this is now the inescapable structure and enduring aesthetic of the university. This is part of why the ideology of colonialism remains so culturally persistent in our society more broadly. The colonial powers laid claim territorially and spatially to the colonised territory, and its Victorian aesthetics are everywhere about us – in the shape of buildings, the names of roads, the street grids we move through. But this is not a hopeless situation or a dead end. It can serve as a premise for immense creativity. The most compelling art/architecture/literature is often born of an internal dialectical force – a desire to speak out against something that messes with your innate sense of the way things are and make a new mark that is original and fierce. South African visual culture is full of extraordinary examples of work that has been forged in response to our dark, damaging and frequently seductive colonial legacy. I explore this in my PhD thesis, “Secular Séance: Post-Victorian embodiment in contemporary South African art”. Our colonial history is fraught with intimate complexities and should not be reduced to simplistic binaries. Take for instance, the campus architecture: as much as it affronts, it also generously accommodates. It is grandiose in places, but also quite functional and humbly utilitarian in others, and that must surely count for something.

Some of the works were by Breyten Breytenbach. Were you surprised by this choice, give that he had served a jail sentence for his anti-apartheid activities, has a Vietnamese wife, and is well-known for his anticolonial writings? 

No, I am not very surprised by this. Some of the artworks that were destroyed in February included a portrait of revered anti-apartheid activist Molly Blackburn and two paintings of anti-apartheid protests at UCT by Keresomose Richard Baholo. I don’t know which Breytenbach paintings have been taken down, but I do know that his paintings, which I adore, tend to be quite surreal, explicit, harshly satirical and dreamlike. In my experience as a writer for the SABC Art Collection, I have learnt that the people who take exception to artworks displayed in the public spaces of the national broadcaster tend to feel violated by images deemed lewd or crude – particularly images that feature a naked phallus; even a flaccid phallus. We live in a society of radical cultural differences, and people are offended or delighted by hugely divergent symbolic triggers. I imagine that the Breytenbach paintings were removed to protect them from possible destruction by people who find their explicit content in some way offensive. I don’t support this path of action; I am merely tracing its possible logic. It would be far more constructive to let Breytenbach’s paintings do their work in the world – to include these hard-hitting works in the syllabus so that the visual grammar and historical roots of offence can be examined and worked through. That is the role of the humanities, as I see it – to make us more literate about and questioning of our humanity in relation to others.

South African art seems often to take its cues from movements and trends in art from overseas. Would this be a form of colonialism, or neocolonialism?

It would be unduly limiting to describe transnational influences in South African art as a form of colonialism or neocolonialism. There might be elements of colonialism and neocolonialism – not to mention American imperialism – in the repetition of certain tropes in South African art, but art is a never-ending conversation across borders. It is a conversation that flows back and forth in all directions and always has done so. It will not be contained.

Can strands of anticolonial art be identified in the history of South African art?

Certainly they can. I would say that the trajectory of postcolonial and decolonial South African art is widening. When I began my PhD project in 2010 there were a few striking contemporary examples of decolonial works that engaged with our troubled 19th-century inheritance (my thesis was limited to the operations of our Victorian legacy in the present, and didn’t take on our 17th-century Dutch inheritances). By the time I completed my thesis three and half years later, there had been a proliferation of contemporary South African artworks tackling colonial residues. Whereas other African countries took on colonialism directly as part of their independence struggles during the 20th century, the deep structure and enduring wounds from colonialism were masked in South Africa by the suffocating presence of apartheid. Our liberation struggle was focused on dismantling the armature of apartheid, but more than two decades on, the deeper, enduring shadow structure is being revealed and contested.

Can artworks be decolonised? Or architecture, as at the University of Cape Town?

I am not certain that artworks can be decolonised, but art can be mobilised with decolonial intent. Perhaps artworks can be acted on in decolonial ways – for instance, the performative act of throwing excrement over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes might be read as a decolonial intervention, as might the burning of the artworks earlier this year. On a more constructive note, colonial artworks can be curated in such a way that they reveal and expose the inner workings of colonialism. They can be set in dialogue with contemporary works that bring out fresh valences in their content or they can be used as conceptual raw material for the creation of radical new artworks. If architecture is seen as an ongoing project, then yes, perhaps it can be decolonised through the introduction of new structures that speak through, back to and alongside the old. But if that speech is constituted solely of retaliatory violence or an urge to eliminate, then it is unlikely to be very beautiful architecture. Your beautiful is my ugly, you might argue – and the more polarised activists who keep reproducing the world only along the lines of coloniser/colonised, oppressor/oppressed, black/white, male/female would argue that there is no common ground. I believe that finding common ground is its own kind of radicalism. If these buildings are to be inhabited by future generations of students, then there will need to be some decolonial love in them too.

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