Rhodes will fall, but what about all the other monuments and statues throughout the country that remind us of South Africa’s painful past? Sibusiso Tshabalala and Nadine Botha found eight creative ways to reconsider history.
When Chumani Maxwele, a 30-year-old political science student, threw human faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands in front of the University of Cape Town, few would’ve thought that this would open room for a much-needed debate about the significance of symbols and what they represent in post-apartheid South Africa.
Symbols are important to any society. Through street names, statues and names of places of public significance – like squares and prominent buildings – we venerate key figures in our history for their contributions to society. And in a subtle way, the symbols we choose tell us a lot about that which we aspire to be.
The preceding centuries of South Africa’s history as a nation are filled with accounts of brutal dispossession and marginalisation between different racial and tribal groups. But that’s not all, as Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis noted the “realm of statues is still a man’s world” – meaning that gender is also an important part of this debate.
Do these symbols of apartheid and colonialism, many of which are anchored in their specific time, stay? Do they go? This is the debate that has engulfed Cape Town, swept across the country and even hit international headlines.
What is clear is that symbols that evoke feelings of offense and are reminiscent of our horrid past, need to find new places in the present. But many statues will stay mounted after Rhodes falls. How do we bring statues into our present and initiate an ongoing conversation and debate about their place in history and in our future?
1. Think pink
During the annual Vryfees Arts Festival in 2014, Australian artistCigdem Aydemir explored using existing statues on the University of Free State campus, and around the city of Bloemfontein, to provoke debates on their meaning, relevance and place in post-apartheid South Africa.
Cigdem went all out with the #PinkPresidents and #PlasticHistories projects. She started off by physically shrink-wrapping two statues on campus: the statues of MT Steyn (the sixth president of the then Orange Free State) and CR Swart (the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, from 1961 to 1967, infamously known for playing an instrumental role in passing the Immorality Act).
In collaboration with another Australian artist, Warren Armstrong, Cigdem then developed a free-to-download augmented reality application for these statues that allows them to be viewed in pink through a smart phone or tablet. In addition to this, voices of South African female poets accompany the images.
Reimagining these statues and monuments from a queer and feminist perspective makes Cigdem’s work particularly significant. In her words, the project “aimed to acknowledge the contributions of people from marginalised races, communities and sexualities in the grand narrative of a post-apartheid South Africa”.
One of her most incisive comments about this project sheds light on how history is never static. Speaking about the use of pink shrink-wrapping over the statues she says:
Far from being set in stone (or bronze), [history] is plastic in the sense that it is constantly shaped and moulded based on our new knowledge of the past.
2. Ironic superheroes
The Monument to the Soviet Army in Bulgaria is infamous for having been painted to depict pop culture icons Superman, Joker, Robin, Captain America, Ronald McDonald, Santa Claus, Wolverine, The Mask and Wonder Woman overnight by an anonymous group of artists. Three days later the painting similarly disappeared overnight.
Since then a number of other temporary artistic protests have been staged using the monument as canvas. And, ironically for communism, it has become one of the hippest places to hang out, a veritable hotspot of “skaters, ravers, rasta and other subcultural groups”. Unfortunately, Russia’s not too charmed.
3. Bring it to life with performance
Infecting the City in particular has made us Capetonians acutely familiar withe how performance art draws people into spaces they wouldn’t usually go and engage with spaces through unexpected narratives. This was artist Athi Patra Ruga’s intention in his “Performance Obscura” work a the 2012 Grahamstown National Arts Festival.
4. Make a stitch in time
One of the most widely known means of temporary public installation, yarnbombing has swept the world. In South Africa, the Yarn Indaba yarnbombed the Voortrekker Monument in 2014. And in Cape Town, in 2012, Isabeau Joubert yarnbombed the “Bart Simpson” Africa statue by Brett Murray on St George’s Mall.
In 1998, artist Tracey Rose did it the other way around. Unravelling 25 doilies from her grandmother and coloured women in the area, she wound the threads around a police monument in Oudtshoorn. Although part of the Klein Karoo Kunstefees programme, the local police were fiercely offended and demanded that she stop, eventually using a knife to cut the threads. John Peffer discusses this highly-charged art performance in more detail in Censorship and Iconoclasm: Unsettling Monuments.
5. Put them all in a park
Those that are taken down, need not be destroyed, but can be relocated. In Hungary, Memento Park is alternatively called a historical theme park or an open air museum and is dedicated to all the statues from the country’s communist period. Designed by architect Ákos Eleőd, he said:
This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.
6. Dress them up
In 1999 already, Beezy Bailey dressed the statue of Louis Botha as a Xhosa initiate with a traditional blanket and hat, and face painted with white clay. That he received death threats in the age before social media is an indication of just how thorny and how far back the question of our monuments goes.
More recently, in 2014, two years after 34 miners were killed at Marikana, an anonymous collective of artists swept the east city of Cape Town, dressing statues as miners and renaming streets after the deceased. Said the African Arts Institute’s Jill Williams to the Daily Maverick: “They aimed to give a human face to the number 34 using wording and imagery to evoke a sense of awareness and even emergency.”
With projection mapping, high-definition video projectors can be used to display images on buildings and statues that completely mask the original. One of the projects at Open City on Church Square during First Thursdays entails Fabian Humphry ofLumen Concepts doing just that: projecting animations by various artists onto the facade of the Iziko Social History Centre, completely transforming it.
Two statues of Rhodes – one from Zimbabwe and one from Zambia – have been stashed in the garden behind the national archives in Harare, reports the City Press. However, Mugabe is insistent on leaving Rhodes’s 1902 grave in Matobo National Park untouched as a reminder of the country’s colonial history.
Meanwhile, the removed busts of apartheid leaders, included HF Verwoerd, are stored in the bunkers of the Voortrekker Monument, reported Sean O’Toole in the Mail&Guardian.
Published at the Cape Town Partnership, 31 March 2015