Press "Enter" to skip to content

Cecil Skotnes’s white memorial

Something in me dies, a piece of me dies every time I attend the memorial service of a greatly misunderstood artist. It would seem that the event, which should place the life of the dearly departed into perspective, is an excuse to deny the role he played as an agent of change in this country.

I found the memorial of renowned artist Cecil Skotnes to somehow be a mockery of the political significance of what his life meant. The fact that people came in droves is not bad in itself. There were whites, coloureds, Indians and, of course, indigenous Africans — a pocket of non-racism, if you like.

But what was disappointing, for me, is that the programme and its content portrayed and projected Skotnes as someone who lived in a lily-white world. In fact, there was a blatant denial of the fact that this was a man who created one of the first pockets of non-racial creative spaces in the country.

For God’s sake, the man was a pioneer who played a pivotal role in awakening the self-consciousness of African artists and opened opportunities for them. But his memorial descended into a cold, calculated and self-serving forum that upheld and promoted whiteness.

One is not denying that he was born, lived and died in a white world. That, in itself, is not a sin. But this was a creative artist who ventured beyond this cocoon to broaden the network of blacks and whites to dream, work and live together.

It is very sad to find an agent of non-racism projected as entirely living in an exclusive white world at the time of his death. That, of course, was not the Skotnes that people who lived and worked with him knew, especially indigenous African artists. Sadly, that was the impression that was created at his memorial at a national gallery, nogal.

This he did not deserve, especially at his death or memorial.

Fine, there was the usual sniffing in the hall and people pretending to choke with emotion. But there is something that is not genuine about this outpouring of emotion. For me, it was a moment when the life of this legendary creative soul became interposed with the horror of insensitivity and the horror of the increasing disrespect for the presence of African people in his life, especially in this land.

I am not a stranger to the pain inflicted by the loss of a beloved creative soul, irrespective of his race, colour or background. However, in a non-racial society, it should not become a pattern to deny the inter-racial links that a man like Skotnes had in his fulfilling and satisfactory life.

Those who knew him will attest to his integrity, political commitment and passionate dedication to use art as a weapon not only to express that which stirred in the soul but to bridge the racial gap. The thing about his memorial at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town is that it was, largely, stale and empty when it comes to his life as a true South African patriot. The programme was too white.

All that it brought, for me, was a reminder that there are still pockets of South African society that not only refuse to transform but acknowledge that we need to wholly celebrate men who lived out the ideals of this society. And Skotnes, from what I have heard about the man, was one such inspiring agent.

Sometimes sitting among the audience, listening to white speaker after white speaker speak about his whites-only lifestyle, it felt like the empty words gore into the body of the one who should have been left alone to rest in peace.

Of course, there was the usual larger-than-life speech and video screening that traced and celebrated the evolution of his white life. This was supposed to show the man in his entirety. It surely must have worked as a tearjerker for pretenders. But this shrine, inevitably, missed the point of how important he was as a pillar for the non-racial struggle in this country.

We just cannot afford for such a sacred figure to be treated just like another white in apartheid South Africa.

Instead, the people who were supposed to give a comprehensive profile of the man gushed forth conversational speeches among themselves about themselves and how the enjoyed a lily-white life with him.

There was no mention of his life at Polly Street, for instance.

There was genuine shock or bewilderment among those who witnessed this sacrilege for the man who had a black soul, too. There was neither acknowledgement nor celebration of a legendary artist who was bestowed with the highest honour by former president Thabo Mbeki’s democratic government — The Order of Ikhamanga.

It would seem that the speakers blitzed Skotnes of any relevance or meaning as an artist who lived and worked for non-racism and equal opportunity for indigenous artists. In fact, what this told me was that he was being distanced from being what he wanted this society to be: a home for all, black and white together!

Instead, the Skotnes memorial was a social opportunity for people to vandalise and scandalise the legacy of a creative soul. It is for this reason that our yet-to-be non-racial world is falling away, disappearing and being destroyed. Our artists, the people who define the soul of the nation, are not only dying but denied the role they have played to inspire optimism and hope for this sad nation.

At least, in his death, Skotnes should have been spared of this tragedy. In the process, his life was turned into business opportunities to celebrate his role as a descendant of imperialists. There will always be vultures that attend memorial services to network and make the next deal.

This behaviour, too, brought a suffocating stench of callousness at the memorial, the smell of a people gone mad.

This must come to a stop, now!

Those who are deeply affected by the death of someone of Skotnes’s calibre and truly understand the meaning of his life must take a stand. There is far too much destruction of our artistic monuments and cultural heritage that is epitomised by men like Skotnes.

Sadly, these are razed down to the ground by the very people who should know better because they understand the role of the artist in a changing society. Yet somewhere in the ruins of what we have done with the life and times of Skotnes lies the spirit of self-sacrifice, selflessness and hope that can point us in the right direction.

We cannot allow ourselves to be murderers of the memory of those who are already dead; those whose spirit should live in all of us.

We will not see the dearly departed Skotnes, again, except in the example that was his life.

He is, and will always be, a creative ancestral spirit.

I pray for the day when we will highlight and celebrate whites who truly were African sons of the soil away from this prevalent social sin of racism.

If Skotnes’s memorial is our weapon, we have blunted the instrument we need to build a truly non-racial society.

Let us move forward to host inspiring memorials to the dearly departed soul of artists who were agents of the change we want to see.

Otherwise these creative ancestral spirits, the Amadlozi that he was so much part of in his life, will come back to haunt us.

Author

  • Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.