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