The decision by a UCT librarian to uncover the sculpture of Sarah Baartman at the university’s main library at the end of last year has sparked a row.
The sculpture, by Willie Bester, had been covered up since March 2016, when student protesters wrapped it in cloth. William Daniels, then a senior UCT librarian, has taken responsibility for uncovering the sculpture.
Academics inside and outside UCT, and artists, including Bester himself, have praised the uncovering. But some members of the UCT community have publicly denounced Daniels.
Bester wrote to Daniels, thanking him, after finding out his sculpture had been uncovered. Bester has previously spoken to GroundUp about art censorship, and about the censorship of his Sarah Baartman sculpture, in particular.
“Head to toe, as though a shameful object, it was hidden under cloth,” David Goldblatt, celebrated anti-apartheid photographer, wrote to GroundUp. Goldblatt chose to move his collection from UCT to Yale University after UCT appointed a committee to remove or cover artworks in its collection.
“For nearly three years, the sculpture stood at the centre of the main library of the University of Cape Town, grotesquely demonstrating the university’s trashing of freedom of expression” wrote Goldblatt. “All who passed bore witness to the violation of Willie Bester’s art, yet few said anything and no-one lifted a finger. Until an American, William Daniels, for whose guts and regard for our precarious democracy let us all give thanks.”
In opposition, UCT professor Elelwani Ramugondo tweeted: “Why would a white man see the need to derobe a sculpture in order to expose a naked Sarah Baartman yet again?”
Ramugondo spent time as Vice Chancellor Max Price’s special advisor on transformation during the height of the Fallist Movement.
Ramagundo’s husband and UCT PhD candidate, Frank Kronenberg, said on Facebook that the removal of the robe “can rightfully be regarded as provocation”. He said he had asked librarians why this had been done.
Following the uncovering of the sculpture, Gwenda Thomas, Executive Director of UCT libraries, said in an email to library staff that she had informed the university executive.
Daniels responded: “Censorship is anathema to the library profession and a grave violation of South African and international codes of professional ethics for librarians, not to mention a scandal to academic freedom and to the constitution of South Africa.” Read more