Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

If Rhodes must fall, art must burn

By Zinhle Manzini

Last week it was reported that the Rhodes Must Fall students had removed paintings from the university’s walls and set them alight. While some people remain unclear about the motive of such an act, some were quick to see it as property damage. Rumours have it that the paintings that were set alight depicted colonialism. Consequently, having them up on the walls assumes a cherishing of our colonial history.

Media organisation News24 reported that possibly one or two of the paintings that were set alight were the works of Keresemose Richard Baholo, a black artist who “painted a series of pictures of protests at the University of Cape Town featuring Jameson Hall in the background”. He painted them in the 1990s. Perhaps burning Baholo’s art work was a mistake or it was part of a plan that remains unknown for now. Nonetheless, I am not interested in debating whether his work of art should have also been set alight. Rather, I would like to share some insight on why burning those paintings has significance and why it makes sense when we think about the overall objectives of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement.

The art world has always been a very elitist space. It has set conventions and strict rules about what counts as art and how we ought to respond to works of art. It has set rules about who counts as the art world public and who has access to this very intimate space. We have seen an increase in the number of black artists and black people who appreciate art and go to the various exhibitions, but these are blacks who have had to learn what it means to be a member of the art world public.

The art world is not a space that is easily accessible to anyone. It requires you to understand why a particular painting is hanging up on the wall, as opposed to someone else’s. And this knowledge is something that most black people do not have access to. Briefly consider the number of art galleries that we may have in the townships? They are very limited. Now I am aware that there are white people who might have not had access to this art world either, but the gist of the argument is that – at least historically – they were not shut away from entering these spaces. We are aware of the evils of colonialism and apartheid that shut away many black people from having access to these spaces and also prevented black people from contributing their works of art to these spaces.

When students from the RMF movement decided to burn these works of art, which may have depicted a cherishing of colonialism, was perhaps not the only reason for doing so. Said differently, the act of burning the paintings was also a symbolic act, that is, it was burning the elitism of the art world. It was a call to do away with these very strict conventions of the art world and its public. It was also an act to say that “as students we are tired of waking up to paintings that require a certain attitude to engage with the painting”. Apart from the notion that the paintings perhaps also didn’t depict their lived realties, it’s an overall act where students are indirectly also calling for an end to how white our institutions are and how they perpetuate institutionalised racism.

If an institution has paintings on its walls, it could be purely for aesthetic purposes, yet it also means that there is a cherishing of art and what the art world stands for.

Understandably, people may argue that it was wrong to burn works of art, yet such a statement does not hold if we accept that art is not just art. Art makes a statement and a painting also has ethical undertones that we need to consider. Hence President Jacob Zuma was upset by The Spear. The overall call really is for people not to see acts of protests as mere violence or to view them in isolation. If a movement like RMF stands for black lives, all their actions are related to their mission. Perhaps at times their actions may seem nonsensical, however it seems odd to suggest that people must respond to pain and anger in a particular way. Burning paintings was symbolic, it’s symbolic protesting!

Zinhle Manzini is currently reading towards her master’s degree in philosophy at Wits as a 2016 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. She is a proud coconut from the townships of Kagiso and is always trying to navigate between the spaces of being an academic and a girl from kasi. A feminist, a reader, and a writer whose sitting on an unpublished manuscript, she is also a director of Ward66 (a concept store in Kagiso) who loves baking and making smoothies. Instagram @conflictedblackwoman or Tweet @conflictedblackwoman

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    • Waxfoot

      Just “Wow”.

      This argument of exceptionalism and righteous indignation can be applied to any cause to justify random and wanton acts of vandalism. Moral relativism at its best.

      Even the recent demolition of 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra, which UNESCO has designated a world heritage site, by ISIS can be justified by the exactly this argument.

    • Richard

      At first I couldn’t work out if this posting was a spoof, or for real. After realising it was for real, the first thing it brought to mind was the little incident of the burning down of the library in ancient Alexandria by Cyril and his mob, because it presented things that were culturally and intellectually alien to them.

      But the writer should ask herself: why stop at art? Africans had no writing before Arabs arrived in north Africa, and whites arrived in southern Africa, so books and contemporary libraries should also be burned down as an exercise in liberation. Motor-cars are European-designed machines, so must also be destroyed. Hospitals with their complex machinery also require elitist practitioners, and so must be destroyed. The writer herself is elitist because she is reading for a master’s degree, and so should self-immolate.

      Amazing, is the only word I can think of.

    • in exile

      What makes me most afraid is that these actions, and others like them – the recent “Fuck white people” graffiti incident, or the “I admire Hitler” incidents on the Wits campus – are sought to be justified, with righteous indignation. Do not be fooled: here lies ISIS, Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Art is universal. There is nothing such a thing as black art and white art – there is just art. Art is not elitist, it is subjective. If you don’t like a particular style of art, then go look at a piece of art that you do like. Not understanding something is not a good reason to destroy it! The beautiful Ndebele bead art has meaning that most people do not understand but I would NEVER suggest that we start ripping it from the necks of women and setting it on fire. People are still trying to piece together what the meaning is behind the cave paintings – should we just have destroyed them because they reflect a time that we do not live in?

      Other than causing RMF the loss of respect and support, what did the destruction of priceless artworks achieve? Do the students feel happier? Do the universities have more money to subsidise students? Does the walls look prettier? Has a single black life been made better? How about trying something CONSTRUCTIVE for a change? You will be pleasantly surprised at how much better you will feel.

    • Zinhle Manzini

      Dear Richard

      Let us remember the context when speaking about the Alexandria incident, and remember that at that time the libraries that existed had little to no space for African authors. Instead, it was books that justified Apartheid and the non-human category of the Black body. I don’t see why we should impose paintings and books to people if they make them feel less human. There are ways of doing these things.

      I also would encourage you to do more reading on Africa’s intellectual history. Although African’s arguably did not have anything written, it is because most of the knowledge was shared through conversation. You seem to be suggesting that books, motor-cars etc are created by the white man? That’s not true.

    • Graham Eddy

      Sorry Zinhle, I have to disagree with you. RMF seem primarily focused on news headlines.
      The problem with destruction of property and general lawlessness is that if it works once, then it will become the norm. If UCT give in to demands because things are burnt, what will protesters do the next time? Just look at the destruction (through fire) at NWU.

      What will burning ‘elite’ symbols solve? Who gets to define what an ‘elite’ symbol is?

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      I’m sorry but what did the Library of Alexandria have to do with apartheid? It was destroyed in around 40 AD or so

    • Thembelani Percival

      I totally agree with you Graham Eddy. Another problem with RMF they don’t allow free space for other students to engage with them it’s either you agree or you not welcomed.

    • Jo

      Wow.

      This exact argument can justify ANYTHING.

      Beware of moral relativism, it’s what made apartheid seem normal to so many people.

      Ironically, you’re using Verwoedian logic to kill the beast.

      Think. Reflect. Re-think.

    • http://www.drivenews.co.za/ Matt Black

      @zinhlemanzini:disqus I think a lot of (white) people agree with a core point of Richards argument: At what point do we declare Zero Day for things that exist in South Africa in 2016 that have their invention or discovery rooted in white history?
      EG. The motor car was invented by Karl Benz (a white German) in 1886 and was powered by a 2-stroke internal combustion engine, invented in 1801 but Philippe LeBon (a white Frenchman).
      In the spirit of decolonisation, should motor cars now be disregarded as they are white inventions?
      Its a facetious example, but the core point stands: At what point do we call Zero Day?

    • http://www.drivenews.co.za/ Matt Black

      Zinhle, your argument from this appears to be “these painting do not represent me or my culture, so it is ok to destroy them.” This is a racist and self-centred argument. I will concede that the paintings upset students and (this is subjective), that a number of the paintings were simply ugly and unpleasant to look at.
      I also think you’re right in saying the art world is elitist and snobby, and that there is a high barrier to entry, no matter your race.
      But these factors are not enough to justify the argument that because one does not understand art and dislikes the content of the artwork it justifies its destruction.
      The artwork should be removed from the residency walls, replaced with work more reflective of 2016 South Africa, but the existing paintings should not be destroyed. Rather, what is wrong with a store-room, museum or selling them off and having RMF/UCT profit from the work of these outdated images?