Curation or Censorship? A Timeline of Events and Articles Relating to Art at UCT
11 Apr 2018
By Nick Mulgrew & Nokukhanya Mncwabe
As promised in our official statement about the ongoing contestations about the role and place of artworks at UCT, as well as the UCT Works of Art Committee, PEN SA is providing a timeline of UCT art-related events and notable articles from the past few years.
In lieu of an unequivocal statement on an issue that, given its complexity, cannot easily be defined as as an instance of censorship, and in the interests of deepening and furthering the debate around Freedom of Speech and Expression in post-Apartheid South Africa, PEN SA present this resource.
We hope this will allow people to detangle the intersecting narratives and make up their own minds about the various factors and elements at play.
PEN SA members and interested parties are invited to contribute to this discourse by sending in opinion pieces or articles to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration. (For written pieces, please keep to a maximum of 1000 words.)
- 13 April 2013: Artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, a UCT graduate whose art is displayed on UCT campus, kills sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo. He is charged with her murder later in the year.
- 15 July 2014: UCT SRC member Ramabina Mahapa writes in the Cape Argus that there are “many portraits, sculptures and paintings around campus which do not portray black people in a good way”.
- Mahapa identifies a number of works, including Hovering Dog by Breyten Breytenbach, Sarah Bartman by Willie Bester, and A Passer-by by Zwelethu Mthethwa.
- 9 March 2015: A statue of Cecil John Rhodes on UCT’s Upper Campus is defaced with sewage by a group of students. These protests eventually catalyse the Rhodes Must Fall movement (RMF).
- One of the protestors, Chumani Maxwele, states that these protests will “continue across the country”. “We are hoping to take this protest to Grahamstown because there is a statue in Rhodes University,” he added, before stating “When there is an art fair we want to take this protest there [too].”
- UCT notes that the statement is a violation of university procedures and a violation of the law.
- 13 March 2015: The Rhodes statue at UCT is covered in cloth by protestors.
- April 2015: UCT Works of Arts Committee, an organ of the UCT Council, places a moratorium on the acquisition and commissioning of artworks.
- 8 April 2015: UCT council votes to temporarily remove the statue of Rhodes from Upper Campus to an undisclosed location.
- 9 April 2015: The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is temporarily removed from UCT’s Upper Campus after a month of protests by students, including RMF.
- 13 April 2015: Renate Meyer, manager of UCT Libraries’ Special Collections, states that “In South Africa, much of our public artwork consists of figurative representations, predominately of individual white men. This ‘public art’ has been informed by a complicated history of state ideology – often quite didactic in nature and singular in context. As such, the policies that concern artworks and representations need to be challenged and transformed.”
- September 2015: UCT establishes a Task Team on Statues, Plaques and Artworks “to make recommendations” to the UCT Works of Art Committee on policy for statues, plaques and artworks.
- This Task Team is composed of staff and students. In 2017, member Jay Pather clarifies further that it is made up “not [of] bureaucrats but respected academics, curators, artists and art historians”.
- Its ambit is “to conduct or commission an audit, assessment, and analysis of statues, plaques and artworks on campus that may be seen to recognize or celebrate colonial oppressors and/or which may be offensive or controversial; to seek comment and opinion from members of the University and other interested and affected parties on these issues, and do this with inclusivity and the University’s location in an African context as the basis of its work.”
- The Task Team is not responsible “for the development of the policy of artworks”; that is the work of the Works of Art Committee.
- At some point in 2015, this Task Team is presented with a list of 19 “controversial” artworks identified by students.
- 16 February 2016: During a protest against, among other issues, the shortage of student accommodation for black and poor students at UCT, a group of RMF protesters broke away, ransacked 23 artworks (and other items from a variety of eras of the country’s history) from nearby residences and burned them.
- One protestor explained the action of burning the paintings as “intensifying the protest and showing UCT management that we are serious about our concerns [about accommodation]”.
- Reports said that a tweet posted by a protestor of the burning paintings was accompanied by the text “Whiteness is burning”, although no evidence of such a tweet can currently be found.
- Artworks burned included five paintings by Keresemose Richard Baholo, the first black student to receive a master’s in fine art at UCT.
- A bus and a car were also burned.
- 16 February 2016: In the evening after the protest, UCT condemned the destruction of the art by RMF as “criminal and [exceeding] all possible limits of lawful protest action”.
- 19 February 2016: Keresemose Richard Boholo states that he supports the sentiments of protestors who burnt his paintings, but opposed the use of violence, calling it “unnecessary”.
- 8 March 2016: The Task Team issues an interim statement stating that it is “incumbent on the University to acknowledge these problems [of representation in artworks on campus” and that “Under present circumstances, decisive and immediate actions are warranted.”
- Among other things, it clarifies that the Task Team was “Precipitated by the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes’s statue last year and broader transformation imperatives”. The Task Team also “noted that in 2015, and indeed earlier, some students at the University had indicated clearly that they find a number of artworks offensive for the way in which they depict black people”.
- The Task Team make the argument that “Unlike in the case of works hung in galleries, members of the University community are not able to chose which works they wish to encounter. The works on display are unavoidable. In this respect, they function as a form of public art. Unlike most forms of public art however, their public appropriateness is not consciously assessed, nor is their acquisition subject to criteria relevant to their public display. Unlike works hung in galleries, those on display on campus are often without any context except their physical setting.”
- The Task Team recommends that the moratorium on acquiring artworks “stays in place until such time that broader consultative processes have been conducted, from which recommendations can be formulated and presented to Council”.
- 9 March 2016: Sarah Bartman by Willie Bester is covered by RMF protesters on the anniversary of the first protests against the Rhodes statue.
- 9 March 2016: Members of UCT’s Trans Collective stop the launch of an exhibition, Echoing Voices from Within, that was jointly curated by RMF and the Centre for African Studies. The protesters argued that “they had been systematically sidelined in RMF structures”.
- Photographs in the exhibition, including some by David Goldblatt, were vandalised by Trans Collective members.
- Three photographs were removed, “as requested by the Trans Collective, who insisted that photographs which pictured trans people be taken down”.
- 10 March 2016: Peter Anderson, Chairman of the UCT Works of Art Committee, confirms that 75 works of art have been removed “from the campuses of the University on the grounds of their vulnerability to potential damage or because they are loan works for which we have a multiple and complicated responsibility”.
- Some works, Anderson clarifies, “were considered vulnerable because [they are] isolated and accessible, others because they are contentious.”
- He further stresses that this is a curative process, which is a “dynamic and creative exercise, and can no more be undertaken oblivious to the context of time than it can ignore the space in which it must be hung or otherwise sited”.
- 30 March 2016: UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee “notes with grave concern” that RMF threatened the Communications and Marketing Department regarding a photographic exhibition that acted as a photographic review of 2015, “set up for the interest of new and returning students and parents”.
- 31 March 2016: UCT’s Communications and Marketing Department clarify that the exhibition was taken down “in light of […] heightened tension at UCT – and on campuses across South African when registration of students was being disrupted”.
- 4 April 2016: The Task Team is quoted in an article by Brent Meersman as saying that “unlike in the case of works hung in galleries, members of the university community are not able to choose which works they wish to encounter. The works on display are unavoidable.”
No other source for this quote has been found.The originating document for this quote has been provided to PEN SA by GroundUp.
- 5 April 2016: Breyten Breytenbach notes his “disgust” at the removal of his work.
- 8 April 2016: Artist Diane Victor, whose artwork Pasiphaë has been covered up, calls the removal of her work “slightly comical” and a result of “simplistic” readings of her work. She states UCT is “bending the knee too easily”, but she says she understands if there is fear work might be damaged.
- 11 April 2016: UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price and Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of History of Art Sandra Klopper write an open letter addressing the “various articles and letters in the media commenting on the process that is being followed to create engagement and discussion around the display of art on campus”, and to “set the record straight” about “criticism that UCT is practicing self-censorship or giving in to the demands of a small radical student group”.
- Price and Klopper argue that “The decision to cover and take down some works is motivated by two concerns: the first is to signal that we have started a process of debate and discussion about how works of art should be displayed on campus, and that we will respond to this debate with seriousness and urgency. The second is in recognition of our custodial obligation to protect our art collection, especially those works of art that have become controversial (whether for good reason or not), noting that in the absence of an art gallery, almost all of UCT’s art is displayed in public spaces. This is necessary while we conduct the discussions about how and where these works should be displayed.”
- 14 April 2016: Arts writer Edward Tsumele argues that the removal of art is “100% a case of censorship, ironically in a democracy whose constitution allows for freedom of expression such as through art”. He additionally argues that “selection of art must be based solely on its artistic merit and not on what a section of community would like to see or not see displayed in public spaces”.
- Tsumele’s interviewer, Hans Pienaar, wonders if it is a “surprising” choice that Breytenbach’s work was removed, seeing as “he had served a jail sentence for his anti-apartheid activities [and] has a Vietnamese wife”; Tsumele says it is not surprising “at all”, but does not elaborate.
- 1 July 2016: Arts journalist Sean O’Toole publishes an article covering different arguments around the events at UCT.
- Writer Mark Gevisser “admitted that he found the event ‘deeply troubling’. Much of his puzzlement, he explained, had to do with the difference between ‘symbolic violence’ and ‘real or actual violence’. He thought students had perhaps confused the two registers, but admitted that their strategy of direct action nonetheless had historical precedent”.
- David Goldblatt tells O’Toole that the Trans Collective protest was the “first time” that a photograph of his had been vandalized: “apartheid bullies had only ever threatened him with violence, but never acted on it. When I met with the octogenarian Johannesburg photographer he repeatedly spoke of his bewilderment at the lack of public debate around the event. ‘I thought that when these paintings were burnt and photographs vandalised there would be an outcry from the art community,’ he said. ‘Not a fuck! I think it’s highly significant and tragic.’”
- Pinky Mayeng, a 23-year-old second-year BFA student at UCT said: “I got why they [burned the paintings]. People preach transformation, but you are constantly reminded of how things have not changed.don’t think the students were clueless about art. Within a revolution certain violence ends up being needed for people to hear you.”
- September 2016: David Goldblatt writes to UCT to revoke his contract with the university, and to remove his collection of photographs from the UCT Libraries’ Special Collections, after “the throwing of shit onto Cecil John Rhodes’ sculpture… following that the burning of over 20 paintings and the burning, in particular of two photographs by Molly Blackburn.”
- He argues in June 2017 that UCT’s actions are “different fundamentally [from curatorship] because they [removed artworks] selectively. They selected certain works. Now, to select certain works is to censor. You cannot do this selectively; either you do this to all of them or none of them.”
- 31 October 2016: UCT’s application to permanent remove the Rhodes statue from campus was approved by Heritage Western Cape. The statue’s lower plinth is retained as a direct influence of “student representation”.
- February 2017: The Artworks Task Team reports and presents their recommendations to the Council of the University of Cape Town.
- Among their conclusions, it is stated that “Artworks, statues and plaques at UCT are dominated by those of white people, in particular those of white males”. The report continues that “while there may not be a problem with individual artworks, their cumulative effect, coupled with the lack of a considered curatorial policy, creates a negative feeling amongst some students and staff.”
- The Task Team “found that currently, UCT does not have a curatorial policy and would need to develop one that is transformation sensitive”. Crucially, however, artworks must not be “censored”, but rather curated and acquired in a way that is “sensitive to the broader objectives of the university.”
- Among other things, the Task Team recommends that UCT “must keep artworks that were removed from the walls in storage pending a broader consultative process. This consultation may take the form of displays of some of the contested artworks, (in dedicated spaces such as the CAS Gallery), debates and discussions around specific artworks and/or themes. Seminars that may involve artists of ‘contested’ works may also be hosted by the WOAC and other departments in the university around different artworks and symbols.”
- Further, UCT “must consider building an art museum with a curatorial team for exhibiting artworks. This may also act as a space for different discourses around all forms of art”.
- 24 February 2017: UCT announces that they have accepted the David Goldblatt Collection’s decision to move to Yale University in the United States. The university states it is “committed to freedom of expression, artistic freedom and the rights of artists.”
- 25 April 2017: In the absence of UCT announcing which artworks were removed in 2016, GroundUp publishes an article containing “probably the list of artworks UCT has removed”, as indicated by an inside source. This list includes work by Richard Keresemose Baholo and Breyten Breytenbach, but not Willie Bester and Diane Victor.
- UCT says there are errors in the list, but, “UCT has declined GroundUp’s request for the identification of the 75 pieces removed, for the identification of the 2015 list of 19 works discerned as ‘controversial,’ and for the identification of the 23 pieces of art destroyed during the Shackville Protests.”
- 29 April 2017: There is a report that the Democratic Alliance “said it will write to [Max Price] to request that the university immediately ‘unban’ the artworks that have been removed from public display or covered up in the past year.”
- The DA’s Belinda Bozzoli said: “It is difficult to comprehend that one of our leading universities, known for its commitment to openness and free speech, and dedicated to the support and curation of the creations of many of South Africa’s best artists, should have indulged this kind of censorship. [It is] akin to the censorship and banning of literature, film, theatre and art by the apartheid government.
- UCT denies the works have been banned, and that they are being kept for “safekeeping”.
- 4 May 2017: The South African Human Rights Commission opens an investigation into the removal of the 75 pieces of art from public display. SAHRC commissioner André Gaum suggested removal might be a violation for the right to freedom of expression and the right to artistic creativity. UCT asserts again the art has been moved and retained for safekeeping. (SABC video report.)
- 9 May 2017: The letter sent to UCT by Belinda Bozzoli in late-April (on the same day Bozzoli spoke to the media on the matter) is published alongside a response by VC Max Price, in which the role and recommendations of the Task Team are re-iterated.
- Bozzoli characterises the Task Team as “Orwellian” and urges Price “to provide the public with full information on this matter [and] restore these artworks to their rightful place in the University’s buildings.”
- Price asserts that “Before the burnings and removals, the University Council had already set up a task team to develop a response to the debates about the University’s art collection and to review the University’s policies on acquisitions and curation.”
- Furthermore he argues that “Most of the works that have been removed for safe keeping were identified by the Council’s Works of Art Committee based on their assessment of the risk to these artworks following some months of debates on campus and particularly the calls from activists associated with the #RhodesMustFall to remove works of art that they considered problematic. It is easy to see how removing these works would come across as censorship – but it was always made clear that they were removed temporarily for safe keeping.” This action “was necessary in line with the primary custodial responsibilities of the university for works of art in our care.”
- 5 June 2017: Willie Bester speaks out against the covering of his work. He states that he “would like [UCT] to just consult with me or explain to me what’s going on… what they are doing now is censorship at its worst. That is not in the Constitution.”
- 7 June 2017: Zwelethu Mthethwa is sentenced to 18 years in jail for murder.
- 24 July 2017: Daniel Herwitz characterises the Works of Art committee’s work as a “forced removal”. Such acts, he argues further, “quickly passes into Apartheid style censorship”.
- 4 August 2017: Ivor Powell, in an opinion piece for Art Times and Daily Maverick, draws a parallel between the UCT Task Team’s curatorial recommendations and Nazi attitudes toward art: Though the thought might be unkind, one can’t help remembering Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler’s Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, where works identified as ‘problematic’ were shown in ways that showed up ‘differences’ in ‘discourse’. The rest, of course, is history.”
- He argues that “Bester – a sculptor of some pre-eminence in the democratic South Africa and the son of a Xhosa father and a mother of mixed race – has been silenced in a debate about race and identity in the new South Africa”.
- “What has never been highlighted,” he also argues “is the fact that the administration did all it could to keep the workings of the committee secret, finally releasing its report in response to a PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) application launched by UCT staffer William Daniels, in the interests of public accountability”.
- The Daily Maverick version of this article contains a quote from David Goldblatt and Paul Weinberg, supposedly as a response to the News24 column by Max Price, but which cannot be found elsewhere: “How do these images equate to ‘institutional racism’? How do they translate into dehumanising imagery of the apartheid era when they have been taken post-apartheid? How do these images of black people show white superiority or ‘institutional racism’ alleged by Price? Do they not add to the complex matrix of heritage, memory and social history as this country engages with the past and attempts to find itself in the present? It is mind-boggling that the Vice Chancellor can so thoroughly misread and misrepresent his own institution’s art collection and these photographers. It seems he has done so to reposition himself in the public domain, and found it expedient to essentialise and grossly misrepresent their life’s work in that cause.”
- 11 August 2017: Jay Pather, a member of the Task Team, writes a defense of UCT’s curation as a “right of reply”.
- Of the art burning, he states “this single wildcat incident has been unashamedly mascotted as the edge of an axe of censorship, an ostensible indicator of UCT’s attack on art. [Yet] at no point was there justification provided, to my mind, by anybody, least of all university management and staff.”
- Of the realities of curation, he states “In any institution, be it a museum, art gallery or educational institution, artworks are routinely removed based on shifting contexts and themes. Some may emerge again later in a different context; others remain in storage. Any gallery or museum curator will tell you that some artworks in their collection have never been displayed.”
- Of the supposed secrecy of the workings of UCT administration and a lack of statements and transparency, as alleged by Powell, he argues: “Powell quotes these statements in his article and then contradicts them later, writing about ‘non-consultative decisions behind closed doors’.”
- Of charges of censorship, he argues: they border “on the inane, and impede the concerted moves that are needed to bring true change to the institution. UCT has among the most highly regarded, cutting-edge art institutions and departments in the world. This is not by accident. It is as a result of the high calibre of people that populate these departments and the resources invested in them. Laying such a charge at the institution indirectly implicates these departments, which is absurd in the extreme. The point of the matter, which is being quietly sidestepped in the articles in question, is that […] the contemporary moment can no longer be left to be described […] by a single demographic. The contemporary moment reveals itself as complex and needing vigilant re-examination. That vigilance informs the strategies UCT deploys for not taking for granted artworks that populate our campuses.”
- 7 October 2017: The Works of Art Committee announces they are working on a series of consultive and informative events, as per the recommendation of the Task Team. These include a public discussion with Willie Bester.
(Image by Nick Mulgrew)