‘Picturing Change’ for university statues

A book written by Professor Brenda Schmahmann in 2013 explores statues, symbols and images at post-apartheid universities. It highlights the urgency felt now in 2015 in light of recent events at universities calling for transformation. 

A BOOK ABOUT CHANGE: Professor Brenda Schmahmann's Picturing Change discusses long existing  symbols and imagery at universities. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

A BOOK ABOUT CHANGE: Professor Brenda Schmahmann’s Picturing Change discusses long existing symbols and imagery at universities.                            Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

IN THE wake of statues in South Africa being protested, vandalised and removed, University of Johannesburg Prof Brenda Schmahmann’s book Picturing Change, has been put back in the spotlight.

Wits University Press have re-posted on their website a link to the book in their catalogue.

Schmahmann, who taught history of art at Wits between 1989 and 2001, spoke to Wits Vuvuzela about her book, what symbols mean at universities and their influence.

The professor could not have imagined that statues would suddenly become headlines this year. “I viewed such questions as relevant already and not something that would suddenly become relevant in 2015,” she said.

Schmahmann said the book came about from an experience at Rhodes University in 2008 while she was a professor there.

“I was involved in initiating discussion about visual culture on campus that had its origins in imperialist traditions and how to negotiate it,” said Schmahmann.

“I was interested in finding out what other universities had done and were doing, and this developed into an extended research project which culminated ultimately in Picturing Change.”

The fall of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) sparked much debate and Schmahmann believes that the removal of the statue points to a much bigger problem.

“I think the sculpture of Rhodes at UCT became in a sense a scapegoat for people’s deep sense of frustration, and probably less with UCT specifically than with a larger society in which the impact of poverty, lack of opportunity and sense of inequity is deeply felt.

“But, as I reveal in my book, the removal of art objects from view does not automatically lead to transformative actions,” said Schmahmann.

That it is not simply a matter of who is represented but how they are represented.

“There have been instances in which placing objects associated with British imperialism or Afrikaner nationalism out of sight and in storage has actually been used to curtail difficult discussions.”

Schmahmann said instead statues should be used as instruments to encourage questions around transformation.

“Why not ask artists for ideas about curating and responding to that object or image in ways that prompt new understandings about it?”

Schmahmann said the politics of the Rhodes statue at UCT was more complicated than at first glance, because it had been sculpted by one of the first female sculptors in South Africa, Marion Walgate.

“Imperialist this work undoubtedly is, but it is also bound up with gender politics,” said Schmahmann.

Because of the 2008 discussion, changes were implemented at Rhodes University with the removal of old portraits with community based work.

“I motivated successfully for Rhodes University to commission for the interior of its Council Chamber, and to replace the portraits, [with] a self-help community project of isiXhosa-speaking women,” said Schmahmann.

Schmahmann said the transformation of cultural symbols also happened at University of Free State University. The university received a grant from the National Lottery and with this they’ve been able to acquire a variety of artworks including those by Willem Boshoff, Noria Mabasa and Willie Bester.

“These have completely transformed the “feel” of that campus,” said Shmahmann.

Shmahman said she hoped the book would convince readers that the answer to statues was not to simply substitute colonial and apartheid era statues with those of struggle heroes.

“That it is not simply a matter of who is represented but how they are represented.”

Schmahmann’s book Picturing Change: Curating Visual Culture at Post-Apartheid Universities is available at the Wits University Press.