Two years ago, 74 artworks on public display at the University of Cape Town were removed to protect them from protesting students. At the time, UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price assured the public that their removal was merely “provisional”. But the longer the artworks are kept out of the public eye, the greater the risk to the integrity of UCT and the more compromised the humanist values at its institutional heart are, writes IVOR POWELL.
“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.” – David Goldblatt and Paul Weinberg, in response to Max Price’s column on News24
During the past two years, fine art has been under attack at the University of Cape Town (UCT), with artworks defaced, intentionally destroyed by fire and blacklisted during various student protests. In response, some 74 works of art from the University’s collection – by some of the country’s most acclaimed artists – have been taken down or covered up “on the grounds of their vulnerability to potential damage” or because “some members of the campus community have identified certain works of art as offensive to them – for cultural, religious or political reasons”.
More than a year since UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price assured the public that the removal of these 74 artworks from public view was merely “provisional”, he once again addressed the issue as part of an opinion piece highlighting what he described as institutional racism on a structural level at UCT and feelings of marginalisation on the part of black students.
But the longer the artworks are kept out of the public eye, the greater the risk to the integrity of UCT and the more compromised the humanist values at its institutional heart are.
As far as artist Willie Bester is concerned, his sculpture of the so-called Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman – which is part of UCT’s art collection and currently covered up by black cloth in the university library – provides a kind of locus for issues of identity: first, for the suffering and racism that occurred in the colonial and post-colonial context, and second, as he put it in a recent interview, “so that [we] can confront who we are”. “[We] fought for everyone to be acceptable with whatever deficiency they have, or what is seen as a deficiency.” read more