‘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.

OPINION: Rhodes must fall: Revolution or an act of weakness?

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has resulted in a decision by the Senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) to move the statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

For the past few weeks the national news has been up in a storm with the Rhodes saga. It all started at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where students threw human excrement at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. The outrage then spread to Rhodes University where students demanded that the name of the institution be changed. Most recently, students from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN) have defaced the King George V statue, splashing it with paint.
Students have justified these undignified acts by calling the statues “symbols of colonialism and white supremacy”.

With over 20 years of democracy, black people are still suffering from the mental repercussions of apartheid, or what I refer to as a ‘victim mentality’. If the black population was fully emancipated, it would not be resorting to such undignified measures (throwing faeces) in order to be heard.

If the black population was fully emancipated, it would not be resorting to such undignified measures (throwing faeces) in order to be heard.

University of Free State (UFS) Rector Jonathan Jansen posed a significant article in his analysis of the movements: “Who cleans up the mess once the media cameras are turned off and the triumphal students return to their air-freshened accommodation on or off campus? It is black workers, perhaps even the parents of students. None of this humiliation matters to the students. They made their point and got their airtime. Who cares about the cleaners?”

“A sense of weakness and lack of education”

Personally, I do not think that the removal of the statue will change anything; it will not even change the history. The very act of removing the statue will only display a sense of weakness and lack of education. Instead of focusing on the negatives of Rhodes, why don’t we acknowledge the high value he put on education? Rhodes University was named after him, after the Rhodes Trust donated 50,000 British pounds in De Beers shares to build the institution in 1904. While Rhodes may be a symbol of white supremacy, he also embodies the value of education and civilization. I believe his statue was erected there for the education values he had. Removing the statue will not only be a futile attempt at resolving the race issue in South Africa, but it will also fuel it.

Mugabe on Rhodes

The changing of the name of the Rhodes University might also be problematic because already there is no unanimity with whose name it should be changed to. The changing of names is also an expensive procedure. Instead of thousands of rands being spent on name-changing, perhaps more money could be invested in transformation campaigns. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the president of our neighboring country, Zimbabwe. Over the years, people have threatened to dig up the body of Cecil Rhodes who is buried in that country. But Robert Mugabe has argued that Rhodes’ legacy was a significant part of history.

Does the end justify the means?

With all these movements going on, I ask myself, is this a much-awaited revolution on the race issues that are still faced in this country? Will the removal of the statue bring about ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ as they call it? Will this be a case of ‘the end justifies the means’?

Before one starts a riot, a hashtag, before one throws faeces at a statue, one must ask themselves the following questions: Do you know enough history of that person? Do you understand why the person’s statue was erected there? And most importantly, are you aware of the positive contributions of that person to the institution?

Steve Biko once said in a speech: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Until we emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, colonial symbols will forever threaten our existence and freedom.

Black Thought Symposium: Rethinking society

Black Thought Symposium

RETHINKING BLACKNESS: Black Thought Symposium members meet weekly to discuss issues that affect black students at Wits. Photo: Mzoxolo Vimba

The first meeting of the Black Thought Symposium for 2015 was held in the basement of the popular bar/hotel The Bannister. A strange combination. Upstairs, young people were dancing to popular, hip sounds, while downstairs, this group was debating what black consciousness and blackness mean in contemporary South Africa.

These group of students meet every Friday to discuss and engage on issues affecting Black students at Wits, and larger society.

Black Thought was started last year as “a platform for black students to interface and discuss issues that speak of the black condition”, says Mbe Mbhele, 4th year LLB and co-founder of Black Thought. “We felt like we were not well represented at Wits and we did not have any platforms to ask certain questions about the culture and nature of Wits.”

“As black students we felt that we are not there yet. There are certain issues we have not yet resolved, and there are certain discourses we still need to have, in order for us to even begin speaking about a ‘rainbow nation’.” he says.

“The hour of Biko has arrived!”

The accessibility of historically white universities to black students and questions of black identity have been raised by students in other institutions as well.

Students at the University of Cape Town have been calling for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue in the institution’s Upper Campus. The students have been voicing their concerns at the ways in which universities side-line black students by using hashtags like #RhodesMustFall and #TransformUCT on social media. They have been recently joined by Rhodes University students, who have also started a social media campaign on the same issue.

Mbhele says the issues these universities are facing are all connected, saying the problems of black alienation that universities face are as a result of the history of colonialism and apartheid.

“These are some of the concerns we highlight in Black Thought,” he says.

In between the discussions and debates, a platform is offered to musicians, poets, writers and visual artists to showcase their talents. This then also allows for discussions on the role that art plays in encouraging young people to think critically about society.

“What is the roles of an artist? What does an artist do in the process of liberating black people? How is [art] detrimental? How is it progressive for the struggle?” says 2nd year BA student and member of Black Thought, Koketso Poho.

Mbhele and Poho believe that Black Thought is growing. They say, in unison: “The hour of Biko has arrived!”