8 things to do with unwanted statues and monuments

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

President MT SteynAydemir present steynDuring 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

superhero statue 2The 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

AfricaWP1web3-816x544One 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

465x465q70marikana_street_2aba1In 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.”

Lumen17. Project it away

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.

Grave of cecil john rhodes8. Hide them

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

A new language of resilience

cput-design-sydelle-0390-Large-800x600How can we move from the derailed ‘development’ train to adopt a system of ‘resilience’? By integrating it into our culture and language, says Ezio Manzini.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s top design thinkers, Ezio Manzini was speaking at a recent “Cultures of Resilience” seminar held by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Virginia Tassinari from the MAD Faculty in GenkEdgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities and Ashraf Jamal from CPUT also spoke.

Behind the buzzword

According to Ezio, although the word resilience has been with us for centuries, it became a buzzword after theFukushima Tsunami in 2011. Not only was this a catastrophic event and the whole world watching but, because it was happening in a country that is perceived to be the epitome of rigour and control, it highlighted how fragile human systems are, particularly in the face of increasing climate change.

What brought the resilience buzz to the global conversation however, was Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012. Although not as catastrophic, the fact that it was happening in New York made it very real to mass media. This also linked the word to the economic crisis, so that ‘resilience’ has come to be applied to more than climate and physical challenges, but also financial resilience.

What both these and other events highlighted is that the future is increasingly unforeseeable and the fallout radically more severe. Our ecosphere is fragile, said Ezio, and to make errors is human. We have to find a way to face the unforeseeable future that maintains the condition of life; more importantly, a good life.

In technical terms, Ezio described a resilient system as having:

  • A diversity of possibilities: Because we don’t know the future, diversity is a precondition and assurance on the future.
  • Some redundancy: To be able to choose different paths based on what the future throws us, the quality of coexistence gives the system fluidity and ability to change shape.
  • Feedback into the system: The capability to respond to and learn from messages from environment, changing direction if needs be.

The end of development

This is a dramatic departure from the current system based on the European tradition that human beings are at the centre of the universe, there is order behind chaos, and if we study and research enough, we will have progress, development (the structural changes needed to make progress possible) and economic growth (the resources for development to make progress possible).

However, Ezio pointed out, although the notion of progress dates back to the 18th century, the notion of development only dates back to about 1945, after the Second World War, when people started thinking that wellbeing should be brought to everyone, “like a train”. Development was simple, clear and successful – after all, we still talk about it today. It has become part of our perception and the way that we frame the world.

However, in an increasingly resource-scarce world with unpredictable challenges and complexities, the train is being derailed. Ezio quoted Wolfgang Sachs:

The last 40 years can be called the age of development. This epoch is coming to an end. The time is ripe to write its obituary… The idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape… Development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavour. It is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, and a myth which unleashes passions.

Professor Ezio Manzini outlined the contrasting approaches of development – that wants to control, optimise, be effective and come up with big solutions for big problems – with that of resilience – that is about being error friendly, acceptable and adaptable, and considers the biggest problem to be the need to come up with smaller adaptive projects.

New words make new minds

So how can we not only redesign our worlds, but our mental states? We need new words to model reality, and the words must “fulfil human tension for improvement”. That is, Ezio feels that the words of sustainability – reduce, use less, be quiet, be conservative – goes against the human spirit.

Drawing from a workshop that Ezio had conducted with faculty members and postgraduate students of CPUT, the presentation showed how through the four steps of word generation, word clustering, writing texts and, finally, new word generation had identified three words:

  • Togetherness: Progress as enriching human relationships through individuality, connectivity and inter-dependence.
  • Acting: Progress as increasing diversity and redundancy by being active, allowing for differences, conflicts and suppleness.
  • Reacting: Progress as safe spaces for experimentation, thereby encouraging learning, incremental change and jazz-like improvisation.

Culture refers to our cumulative deposit of knowledge, beliefs, values, time, roles, relationships, etc, said Ezio. That is, culture is how we imagine ourselves in the world and what we think our role in the world is. We all talk from the culture to which we have been socialised. Can these words help us reimagine ourselves and our roles to model a new reality of resilience, rather than development?

Published by the Cape Town Partnership, 9 October 2014