South Africa

Right of Reply: UCT is not a closed and controlled gallery

In any institution, be it a museum, art gallery or educational institution, artworks are routinely removed based on shifting contexts and themes. Some may emerge again later in a different context; others remain in storage. Any gallery or museum curator will tell you that some artworks in their collection have never been displayed. By JAY PATHER.

An incident happened on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus on 17 February 2016, not an ad hoc incident but one that occurred within a very particular context. It was in the middle of sustained student protests around a range of issues, among them the shortage of accommodation on our campuses. A group of students broke away and burnt paintings. This was a shock to everybody. At no point was there justification provided, to my mind, by anybody, least of all university management and staff. And certainly there was no unanimous agreement on this action as a strategy among students. Since then, this single wildcat incident has been unashamedly mascotted as the edge of an axe of censorship, an ostensible indicator of UCT’s attack on art.

The sensational generalisations that have followed tumble easily into questioning well-mediated processes of transformation that in any other discipline in South Africa 23 years after independence would be considered quite normal. Some of this questioning includes the appointment of an Artworks Task Team – comprising not bureaucrats but respected academics, curators, artists and art historians – that has mooted the questioning of some artworks and their continued display in public spaces.

In order to arrive at some clarity over these allegations and generalisations, the range of actions involving artworks need to be systematically separated. Magazines and writers inexplicably indulge the sensation of artworks in flames for an article about transformation, and knowingly or unknowingly contribute to obfuscation, mistrust and a feeding frenzy. In South Africa, the knee-jerk response to any transformative action, well overdue in a 23-year-old democracy, is often accompanied by hysteria by those who have not had to make drastic changes to their lifestyles to accommodate a fragile and growing democracy. This comfort has bred an indolence that indulges lack of insight and restraint, let alone accuracy. For some people, the discomfort in the encounter with the newness of transformation makes them clutch at straws. How else does one explain such hopeless generalisation?

So in the first instance, these incidents and processes must be separated if only for the fact that these actions emerge from different constituencies over different times – some are of the moment, and others mediated over a long period of time as part and parcel of curatorial questions and policies of transformation. The fact that all these actions have as their subject “artworks on campus” is not sufficient to allow one to bleed into another.

Contemporary art, as the term suggests, occurs within this time and this place. The university as an institution that supports contemporary art needs to take this very seriously. In the few remaining stable democracies in the world, taking on that which is contemporary may be one of maintaining global trends. In South Africa, understanding what we mean by “of this time and of this place” is intimately connected with South African society in 2017 – a society that remains among the most unequal in the world – as well as the international community. If this connection fails to be made, that which is said to be contemporary is disingenuous and continues to slavishly follow global trends.

It would be short-sighted to ignore the fact that the university is not immune to the developments in our society, and UCT is on its way to abandoning the model of the detached ivory tower, with the full support of a society anxious for stability that can only be attained through transformation. These currents determine art, its creation and its curation.

Curation

In any institution, be it a museum, art gallery or educational institution, artworks are routinely removed based on shifting contexts and themes. Some may emerge again later in a different context; others remain in storage. Any gallery or museum curator will tell you that some artworks in their collection have never been displayed. These institutions also routinely allow the sale of works to make room for others.

Ivor Powell in his article titled: The art of UCT’s Max Price: Siding with ignorance and misperception on Daily Maverick, and first published on SA Art Times, equates curation with Nazism. This is not exactly new, but more often it is a flippant point of view bandied about by disgruntled artists and audiences at a group show opening. However, Powell writes that, “UCT appears to be building a platform from which it will be in a position to tell you what to think.” In a world of acknowledged subjectivities, I am hard-pressed to find any curatorial gesture as being more than “telling you what to think” unless it is bathed in universalist twaddle.

From as early as the 20th century it had already been acknowledged that there is no such thing as objective curation. Every act of art making and art exhibiting is imbued with a point of view. Here’s the rub though: up until now, under the guise of “we are not telling you what to think”, there was only one point of view – a “universal” viewpoint based on some slippery humanist principles. Of course the fact that this emerged from a particular demographic was beside the point. Everyone was led to believe that this was the way, and agency and the sources of that agency were mystified.

The UCT Artworks Task Team acknowledged in the production of its report a self-consciousness in curation, and that this process therefore needs to be broadly consultative and accessible. Powell quotes these statements in his article and then contradicts them later, writing about “non-consultative decisions behind closed doors”. Ironically, the appointment of the task team as well as the drawing up of new Terms of Reference for the Works of Committee all attempt to address the lack of consultation in the past.

In the previous Terms of Reference for the Works of Committee, which I was elected to, it was clear that these processes were not broadly consultative; works were acquired and displayed as a result of decisions that were indeed made “behind closed doors”. It is precisely this lack of consultation that the committee is addressing, to open those closed doors while understanding that in any museum or art gallery, the curation and display of artworks is based on specific contexts that, through processes of consultation, will be deemed important.

The University as a Public Space

The university is not a closed and controlled space in the same way a gallery is. In a white cube gallery or museum space, a collection of works may follow a particular theme with curatorial notes readily available simply because it is closed and discernible as a collection inside a finite space. A gallery assistant on call, labelling, the singular-purpose space – all of these facets make it possible for just about any work to be viewed since the creation of a context is possible in this controlled environment. Indeed, in contemporary exhibitions, coherence of the collection is key, and the curation may make or break an exhibition.

The university comprises sets of rambling spaces, much like a city. Moreover, there are indoor and outdoor spaces. Coherence of context is hard to maintain as it is, and made even harder because, unlike in a gallery where an audience chooses to go (or not) and provides a certain predictability, the composition of an audience at a university is much more diverse and unpredictable.

Because of this unpredictability, intentions are hard to grasp immediately. An artist may have the best possible intention at a particular time, but when this time passes, the residue of the action may clash with what exists in a contemporary context.

Of course, when the acquisition of works is based on artistic merit and the reputation of the artist, they become classics. Even when naked women are objectified by men throughout history in classical paintings, the classical framing asks various publics to suspend gender critique and to view them with a specific lens, framed and curated as such. Importantly, these works would most often be inside art galleries and museums and very rarely displayed in public spaces, certainly not without adequate framing. By a similar rationale, the removal of works is not an indictment on the artist; it is a call for curation, context and framing.

At an art gallery, you may look at a work once, on individual volition, and decide whether you like it or not. You have the freedom to stay with it or leave. In a corridor that leads to your lecture hall or the library, which you enter and exit every single day of your educational life, you have no choice but to repeatedly encounter this work. Should you not be consulted, or at least have your views taken into account, about the placing of such a work?

Being sucked out of a contemporary moment by a work that catapults you into unhealed wounds induces a schizophrenia and distension. Some students are able to cope with this, given the weight of symbols that affirm their existence elsewhere. But many students simply can’t cope – they have neither the resources to do so, nor the access to symbols that are overwhelmingly affirmative. We have to listen to these voices because they are, if not defining the new contemporary, at the very least a part of it. We owe it not just to the students but to the development of richer interactions with art that articulates these moments in our challenging history.

The contemporary university as a public space calls for innovative strategies that are different from both the controlled art gallery as well as the modus operandi of the past. In the university of the past, clear rationale for display did not matter or seem to matter. Works were displayed fairly randomly and this could survive since there was an assumption of a homogeneous university community, a singular public as opposed to plural publics. This assumption was not exactly wrong; it was arguably a true reflection of the singular demographic of staff and students. However, as the university’s population changes, the assumptions of this homogeneity can no longer hold.

Moreover, and this is where the issue becomes extremely difficult, because of the lack of blueprint, it is hard to tell what the new heterogeneity may be. It is not difficult to have a rough sense of what a heterogeneous, diverse university community looks like superficially: a truer reflection of South Africa’s population than previously. But identities are not only based on what someone looks like; what identities may be or may not be is fragile, fluid and emerging. To call for definitive answers and a singularity of expression that match the definitive qualities that came after 450 years of systematic colonialism is ridiculous. Our current reality is discursive, multifaceted and, most important, emerging; it must be approached with thorough, intensive consultation. And this takes time.

And these identities are no longer characterised in the main by the fight against apartheid in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as some writers are keen to point out even though those of us who lived through and fought during those periods would love this nostalgic turn, a big up on our, in some instances, heroic efforts at fighting a totalitarian regime. No, that particular struggle is in the past. There are newer and more complex struggles now, the character and texture of which are different. Moreover, not all of us can claim automatic membership because many of these are further characterised by intersectional issues of class, race, gender and sexual orientation.

That particular struggle against apartheid, characterised by a non-racialism and in many instances that cut across class and gender, exists as history and that fight we should acknowledge was fought so that new, stronger, unfettered discourse could emerge. If we truly believe in the veracity of our struggles before the ‘90s, we should not be afraid of these emergences. Perhaps the cause of this fear is that the new contemporary will not be determined by us. What we can do, however, is create an open enough field for these identities to be played out with enduring principles of respect, listening, acknowledgement and a sense that we are all entering unknown territory. This is where art can play a vital role.

Since much of the work that has come into question has dealt with the exposure of the black body it may be useful to look at this more closely.

The Black Body

In a 2012 exhibition entitled Exit the Thief ll, Brett Murray exhibited The Spear at the Goodman Gallery. In the painting, President Jacob Zuma is depicted in a manner resembling the classic Victor Ivanov poster Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live. In Murray’s work, however, Zuma’s genitals are exposed.

President Zuma and the African National Congress issued an application to the courts calling for the painting to be removed, due to the personal injury it had caused the President. In the midst of the trial the painting was vandalised and destroyed by two men identified as Barend la Grange and Lowie Mabokela. Footage of the act was captured by e.tv journalists. Le Grange, a white man, places two crosses across the face and genitals depicted in the painting and Mabokela uses black paint to cover the rest of the figure. The subsequent treatment of the vandals reveals something further about white bodies and black bodies and their relative treatment. Le Grange is chided, politely taken aside and handcuffed, while Mabokela is manhandled, head-butted and thrown to the floor with his hands behind his back.

Achille Mbembe wrote at the time: “The controversy surrounding the exhibition of President Jacob Zuma’s private parts has not only unleashed a torrent of emotions and passions. It has also released high levels of negative and at times toxic energy. What Brett Murray has done is like sticking a needle in the heart of a figurine. What has irked many is not the desecration of President Zuma’s genitals as such. What has irked many is the fact that once again, the black body is the repository of all the anxieties and neuroses of white South Africa. What has irked many is that, after 20 years of freedom, the black body is still a profane body. It still does not enjoy the immunity accorded to properly human bodies.” (Mbembe 2012).

Mbembe’s comments are instructive. The vision of naked black bodies as things is indeed indicative of a society that continues to other and dehumanise blackness. The point is that this is not just history; it is a contemporary phenomenon of a society that remains economically untransformed, and whether one agrees or disagrees with Mbembe, this is a contemporary debate. It would be absurd for the university to ignore debates such as these in its choices regarding public displays.

UCT’s relationship with art

The censorship charges levelled at UCT border on the inane, and impede the concerted moves that are needed to bring true change to the institution. UCT has among the most highly regarded, cutting-edge art institutions and departments in the world. The Drama, Fine Art, Opera, Music, Creative Writing, Film and Media departments, among others, lead in contemporary art production and discourse in South Africa and beyond. This is not by accident. It is as a result of the high calibre of people that populate these departments and the resources invested in them. Laying such a charge at the institution indirectly implicates these departments, which is absurd in the extreme.

This year alone, UCT’s Institute for Creative Arts Live Art Festival hosted and supported the controversial works of Steven Cohen (recently arrested in Paris); Jelili Atiku (recently arrested in Nigeria) Zanele Muholi (whose exhibition was shunned by a previous Arts and Culture Minister) Dean Hutton (whose work was publicly vandalised at the IZIKO National Gallery) together with cutting-edge works by artists from Switzerland, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia. Importantly, all 33 events were free of charge, for everybody and anybody to attend save for age restrictions on a few. The works were performed and viewed in public as well as private gallery and theatre spaces and curated according to levels of sensitivity and relevance.

Works such as Mamela Nyamza’s attack on patriarchy and religion, or the controversial works of Nora Chipaumire, Gavin Krastin, Samson Kambalu, Gabrielle Goliath and Donna Kukama were given full support and exposure to students, staff and the general public. Panel discussions that followed the performances questioned everything including the university itself. At the risk of sounding rhetorical, does this sound like an institution bent on censoring art?

The point of the matter, which is being quietly sidestepped in the articles in question, is that the realism, texture and nuance of the contemporary moment can no longer be left to be described, critiqued, expressed and circulated by a single demographic. The contemporary moment reveals itself as complex and needing vigilant re-examination. That vigilance informs the strategies UCT deploys for not taking for granted artworks that populate our campuses.

It is of course sad when some artists choose not to see this, especially artists who have benefited under apartheid and indeed developed international reputations as a result. It would seem to them that the process of redress is over. And yet it is patently clear that it is not. Security is something that affects everybody. Lest we forget, lack of security was a persistent feature of this country for over 400 years. In the past it affected the majority only (and still continues to), while the privileged few were protected by the heightened security that the country afforded them. Fleeing to foreign shores is the prerogative of the privileged.

What of those who remain? We face a lack of security every moment that we live in a country deeply troubled by its economically inequitable present, and under a government that remains detached. To assert that security and respect of artworks inside of UCT has simply vanished is disingenuous. Fleeing this fact for safer shores, reminiscent of the flight in 1992, is hardly a solution. Staying, moving bit by difficult bit through the realities that artists have created in their work, that is the existential truth of living in South Africa right now. The materialities of daily living, the resultant psychic distension, the sadness and palpable hurt, not simply of history but of the now, these material realities must surely receive our attention as much as the image of it that we want to protect.

In recognising that redress has not happened, that the struggles of the present are complex and are borne out of the past, we need to work harder at holding on to the values we developed in earlier struggles. And we can do all of it. With imagination, courage and patience. There are no guarantees but abandoning these opportunities because it gets a little uncomfortable is not an option. The inertia and resultant trauma caused by deeply-felt chasms and wounds left unattended to in our society create an environment for the re-emergence of nationalisms. History tells us this. Wary of this, we should be focused on understanding what this contemporary moment is, what opportunities it affords us, and the complexity of the challenges that students and our society present to us.

We do not have to be led blindly. We do need to listen and work accordingly to create a much more intelligent rendering of this contemporary moment. We cannot merely pay homage to past work and the archaic formulae of previous regimes of art production and its dissemination. Underhand stabs at the concerted efforts by historians, curators and educationists that make up groups like the Works of Art Committee or the Task Team, sometimes blithely and sensationally placing at their feet blame for the destruction of artworks, is as reprehensible as it is irresponsible. We have much work to do. As we look into a fraught past, a contested present and a future without clear definition, we need to develop with rigour newer, complex models for the curation and display of art that may provide the inspiration that UCT has always provided but in a world that redefines itself every single day.

On another fateful day, when the Cecil John Rhodes statue was being removed at the UCT campus, artist Sethembile Msezane staged a powerful performance portraying in her words “the Zimbabwean bird that was wrongfully appropriated from Great Zimbabwe by the British”. In this act of a phoenix rising, rich metaphors were graphically present, not least of all in the textures presented – solid stone (the Rhodes statue) being removed and in its place Msezane’s performance, something speculative, fluid, temporary, in search of. Last week this work was foregrounded in the citation naming Msezane as one of the four finalists for the 2017 International Prize for Live Art. A collective that she is also a part of, iQhiya – consisting of 11 disaffected young black women, many from the Michaelis School of Fine Art – was formed as a response to their consistent exclusion from spaces in the South African art world. Last month the iQhiya collective opened documenta 2017 in Athens, one of the most important art biennales in the world.

These events of course need not be our exclusive prompt but are instructive. They help us understand that these moments are not peculiar to South Africa. In a world beset with crises, the elusive place of art as an articulation of this moment is being searched for. These events inspire us to embrace the potential that presents itself to us in what we as South Africans do now. These movements present how we may possibly be able to do everything – respect and protect a legacy, but also make room for the fiercely contemporary, located here and now in our local spaces, as well be superbly and powerfully global. DM

Jay Pather is Associate Professor at UCT and directs the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA). He is also Chair of the Works of Art Committee. He writes in his personal capacity.

Photo: Alex Hotz, Zola Shokane and two other protesters in animated discussion on the night paintings were burnt at UCT. In court papers Hotz said she had a conversation with other protesters ‘about the wisdom of burning the art’. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

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