A wave of condemnations and outrage hit the media after University of Cape Town artworks were burnt on campus. Even those academics, who from the rooftops declared their support for the fees must fall movement were very quick to distance themselves from what they saw as a particularly “senseless” act.
This violence, it seemed, was misinformed, uncultured and uncouth. “How could the students not understand the cultural value of artworks” on campus? Worse, “they have shot themselves in the foot by unwittingly burning the works of “the first black student to have received a master’s degree in fine art at UCT.” (Note, of course, the silence about the other portraits.)
Some have started to doubt the nobility and “rationality” of the cause. Seen as a potential threat to all university art collections as well as cooperative staff and student security, the movement was, in a bizarre fashion, compared to Isil. It seemed, in this upheaval, that all South Africans would be worse off if any artwork is destroyed as this artwork in general like colonial architecture is our “common heritage.”
There’s something wrong with this picture.
First, let’s really think about the things that were lost in the fire. Let’s think about the things that were lost through violence in the name of civilisation. In 1874, Kumasi was blown up and destroyed by the British. In 1897, Benin City and its artworks were burned down and looted under the administration of Admiral Harry Rawson. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, missionaries who saw African wooden sculptures as “fetishes” systematically burned them down. There are too many examples of colonial violence – citing all of them would leave us a continent of ashes. These were of course fires that did not only decimate valuable art and architecture but lives were lost.
And lives are lost habitually in “civilised” Cape Town. It is striking that the strong condemnation against violence and “particularly tragic” loss of artwork is absent when there are rampant shack fires in which lives are lost. How could a potent symbol like Shackville fly over so many academic heads? If it was enough to threaten the “sense of security” to professors owning second or third coastal homes, insured to the point of insanity, then it was a really significant historical feat. Shackville engages, at a profound intellectual level, with the game of symbolism already at play – except this time, the spectators are participants. And this time, the co-called cultural value has to account for shared values, if there are any. As black people, we are often asked to “get over” the violence of the past, and of the present. Since we live in a country of “shared values” and “common heritage,” we should equally be able to state: “Get over the artworks.” And this would still not begin to level the playing field.
This is not a revanchist exercise, but I find myself astonished at how amnesia intoxicates the judgment that criminalises a bold and frank response to injustice. Reactions to recent university housing protest fires highlighted the value placed on objects over black lives. Somehow, the artistic assets needed more protection because their posterity would benefit “many.” Cars were mourned, busses were mourned, and artworks that had become meaningless even to the artist who made them were mourned.
It seems absurd, to me, to ask the oppressed to enjoy and “appreciate” and mourn the art of the oppressor. And it is equally absurd to appeal to social cohesion as the role of art in the most unequal society. Especially when that “art” has been used to dominate. Art as we know it today survives because it has annihilated many people-centred forms of art-making. Art was not always for frames and walls. Who is asking about the decimation of our art? Traces of it are relegated to market squares, as undervalued crafts for tourist titillations. Museums in “civilised” countries are filled with the proof of that violence and the tragic destruction of our art. Entire museums set up not only with objects looted after violent fires were set up on entire cities but also heads of kings displayed as trophies.
None wants to be reminded of this violence but perhaps if there are condemnations then they should be accompanied by admissions of complicity. Better yet, there needs to be some cognizance the significance of Shackville as protest art. Institutional critique has long been a major tenet in art, and Shackville became a site for re-opening important debates about the illusive shared fate in South Africa. Is this not what valuable art should really be about: giving perspective to the injustices that have become “normalised”.
Shackville made visible what Frantz Fanon (1968: 41) called the Manichean colonial world:
“The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”
The profaning of “value”, in 2015, when the cultural atmosphere on campus came alive through the removal of the Rhodes statue, made the brutality of that Manichean world visible. Similarly, Shackville radically and frankly re-opened the question of violence and whose lives matter. Suddenly the univer-topia, divulged the dead bodies that lie at its foundations. It revealed that transformation had been like mowing the lawn with blunt-nosed scissors in order to maintain the duality that constructs value through devastation.
This juxtaposition – the ill-named Jameson Plaza and the shack where many came to gather – is really an important point of departure.
Let’s find our common voice: re-constitute Shackville
Shobane writes in her capacity as umuntu omnyama. She is a member of the Black Academic Caucus.