In February of this year Illma Gore, made a pastel drawing, entitled “Make America Great Again.” The 11″ by 14″ drawing portrayed Donald Trump, naked, with a shriveled penis.
On her website the artist explains:
“‘Make America Great Again’ was created to evoke a reaction from its audience, good or bad, about the significance we place on our physical selves. One should not feel emasculated by their penis size or vagina, as it does not define who you are. Your genitals do not define your gender, your power, or your status. Simply put, you can be a massive prick, despite what is in your pants.”
The artist was forced to withdraw the image from Facebook, “due to anonymous complaints invoking the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” Apparently the claim is “only Mr. Trump owns the commercial rights to his likeness” (Observer). So she has been threatened with a lawsuit if she attempts to sell the drawing. Illma Gore also could not find a gallery to display it in Los Angeles, and she has been the victim of death threats. Despite all this, the drawing is now on display in the Maddox Gallery in Mayfair, London.
Another controversial portrayal of a political figure displaying his genitals is Brett Murray’s representation of Jacob Zuma, “The Spear” (2012).
The legal controversy and media attention surrounding the painting is available on Brett Murray’s website. Controversy surrounding the painting was also captured in a documentary, “Shield and Spear,” directed by Peter Ringbom, available on itunes.
But his was not the first painting portraying Zuma’s genitals. As far as I know the first was Ayanda Mabulu, “Ngcono ihlwempu kunesibhanxo sesityebi“ (Better poor than a rich puppet), (2010).
Mabulu’s recent painting of Zuma, “Pornography of Power” (2015), which depicted Zuma committing rape, has proven controversial as well. Mabulu explains his work in an EWN interview. The political cartoonist, Zapiro, has commented on the painting as well.
One of the paintings destroyed in the Rhodes Must Fall protest is “The Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom” by Keresemose Richard Baholo. He was the first Black South African to receive a master’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Cape Town. In total, five of his paintings were destroyed. “The Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom” was part of a series by Baholo that hung in Jagger Library on the University of Cape Town campus.
Other than the one image of the painting burning, I otherwise have no other sense at this time of what it looked like. And the only other knowledge I have of the series of paintings is, so far, from a 2013 post entitled, “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa,” in which John Higgins explains that the series of paintings, “form part of a permanent exhibition that commemorates the university’s resistance to the key instrument of racial segregation in the apartheid era, the 1959 Extension of University Education Act, and celebrates the final stage of its repeal in 1993.”
His point is to otherwise argue against policies that he sees as a threat to academic freedom in general and to the “core skills of humanist education – often referred to as the skills of a ‘critical literacy’ – [which] have much to contribute to the public good in ways which are being denied, or simply made invisible by the terms currently dominating higher education policy.”
What further deepens the issue of academic freedom and the public good of critical literacy in South Africa at this time is the history of the Torch of Academic Freedom itself. An account of the origins of the Torch of Academic Freedom, and of the symbol of the Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom, was provided by John Cartwright in 1997. It is worth quoting at length:
“In 1957 the UCT SRC and the local committee of NUSAS were much involved in organising protests and demonstrations against the threatened legislation enforcing university apartheid – at this stage, these public protests were entirely a student initiative. In that year, the hypocritically named Extension of University Education Bill was due to come before Parliament for its second reading.
“As some people may not know, the second reading of a bill is the crucial one, the occasion on which time is provided for extended debate. We therefore decided that this was the crucial occasion to take our protest to Parliament itself, and we (I’ve no idea who exactly thought it up) decided to focus public attention on a torch of academic freedom, which would be extinguished on the occasion of the second reading (the third reading is a mere formality).
“The torch was made out of a wooden staff somewhat less than a metre long, with a shiny tin can nailed onto the top. In the can were rags soaked in paraffin. On the night before the Parliamentary reading, we set it up at the top of the Jammie steps, in the semi-shelter of the portico, lit it, and held an all night vigil, taking turns of a couple of hours each. It was cold and windy, with scattered rain.
“In the morning we quietly put it out and took it by car to the Hiddingh Hall campus, where we re-lit it. I – being a keen runner at the time – had been deputed to run down the Avenue with the flaming torch and into Parliament Street. I jogged down, keeping a careful eye on the flame, turned right at the bottom of the Avenue where the awful military statue of Smuts now stands, and right again up Parliament Street (which was not at that time closed off with gates) to the entrance of the House of Assembly.
“Despite the chilly weather, quite a crowd had gathered in the street. Waiting on the steps of the House of Assembly was Neville Rubin, Chair of the SRC, wearing a leather glove on his hand. I went through the gate and stopped in front of him, and he extinguished the flame with his gloved hand. We then went in to the public gallery for the debate, and listened to Viljoen, the Minister of Education, spouting the usual Nat rubbish.
“The arrival and extinguishing of the torch was filmed by BBC television and shown on Richard Dimbleby’s Panorama programme. I regret that I do not remember the names of the other students involved in planning and carrying out this demonstration.
“It was only in 1959, with the implementation of the new Act, that UCT as a body took to the streets in protest and took over the symbol of the extinguished torch” (“Origins“).
I need to discover further the use of the extinguished torch in student protests on the University of Cape Town campus over the course of the next three decades. So far what I know is Robert Kennedy gave a speech on the UCT campus in 1966, on the occasion of the “University’s Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom.” He entered Jameson Hall following a procession led by a student carrying the extinguished torch of academic freedom. On the stage from which he spoke sat an empty chair left for Ian Robertson, President of the National Union of South Africa Students, who was banned from appearing in public and from speaking to the media by the apartheid government (“Ripple Hope speech“). Here is the full text of Kennedy’s speech praising the youth with the courage to work for change: “A Tiny Ripple of Hope.”
Erik Erickson, in Life History and the Historical Moment, recalls giving the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture at UCT in 1968. The ceremony began with a procession led by a woman carrying the extinguished torch of academic freedom, followed by recitation of a proclamation:
“Without consultation with our University, without its consent, and, in our view, for no sufficient reason, a law has been passed authorising the Government to impose restrictions based on colour. . . . We dedicate ourselves to the tasks that lie ahead: to maintain our established rights to determine who shall teach, what shall be taught, and how it shall be taught in this university, and to strive to regain the right to determine who shall be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit” (169).
One of the latest developments in the Rhodes Must Fall protest has been the burning of art. Protesters removed paintings from the walls of University of Cape Town buildings and set them on fire. The burning has been characterized by a representative of RMF as “intrinsically” part of the project of decolonizing the university (“Questions“). Another student has justified the burning of art as a reaction against the exclusivity of the art world:
“Said differently, the act of burning the paintings was also a symbolic act, that is, it was burning the elitism of the art world. It was a call to do away with these very strict conventions of the art world and its public. It was also an act to say that ‘as students we are tired of waking up to paintings that require a certain attitude to engage with the painting.’ Apart from the notion that the paintings perhaps also didn’t depict their lived realities, it’s an overall act where students are indirectly also calling for an end to how white our institutions are and how they perpetuate institutionalised racism” (“If Rhodes Must Fall“).
None of this involves Lady Skollie in any way. If you have not heard of her, check out this post about her recent exhibit, “Ask for What You Want,” on Design Indaba.
The connection I am making turns on an article about Lady Skollie in the Mail & Guardian with the by-line “Lady Skollie takes the Art World beyond the White Cube,” an article in which the reporter describes the artist as using digital media to “escape the exclusive economy of art.”
In an interview she responds to the question, “What is unique, exciting and or encouraging about the position of the youth in our country?” by observing, “We’re finally seeing ourselves for what we are. And not through the eyes of those that have told us what to be for hundreds of years. We’re ready to be true to ourselves, create our own narratives and our own contexts.” To the question, “What issues exist within SA’s creative industry at the moment?” she replies, “The disparity between the audience and the art. Weird gallery structures, the fact that there are still people that feel so alienated, racially, economically, from the art world that they never visit galleries. The fact that a newspaper couldn’t print the title of my work because it had the word ‘yonic’ in it? I don’t know, I could probably go on forever. There’s a lot of stuff wrong in the creative industries, not just SA.” Her hopes for the future of the industry: “Operating more like a business. Never ever using the term ‘struggling artist’ or blaming your BA for your lack of work. I think I’d like to see it as just that; a creative INDUSTRY. Providing more work, becoming a financially viable option of study to pursue.”
So Lady Skollie is making claims about art in South Africa that I think are resonant with the claims made in defense of the actions of the Rhodes Must Fall protesters: people feel racial and economic alienation from the art world. No, she does not characterize that experience of alienation in terms of institutionalized racism, but that is beside the point I want to make.
The point I think most worth making is suggested in the Mail & Guardian article: artistic production in digital media is one way for young artists to express themselves outside the institutionalized structure of the traditional art world. Lady Skollie’s podcasts on Lalela being just one example.
I realize the oppositions are not nearly that simple. At the same time, moving the issues of decolonizing the spaces of institutions would seem to require more than the simple opposition of removing or destroying monuments and paintings and keeping those monuments and paintings. Populating digital space with objects that differently occupy our attention can not but have consequences for how we occupy each other as well as for how we occupy the built environment.
I have been trying to write about the Rhodes Must Fall movement for some time and have a whole lot of pages with not nearly enough in the way of an argument. Part of the reason, I think, is that I am trying to do something different with this work. That something different is writing about social media as a feature in the geography of rhetoric. Already in this formulation of it there are a lot of difficulties, but these difficulties are less problems and more challenges of thinking differently. That part is good.
The other difficulty, what feels like the real obstacle, is the fact that the protest is ongoing and that things can change daily. For example the recent burning of books and then of art by members of Rhodes Must Fall that is contemporaneous with less iconoclastic performance art.
Most recently though, on March 7, 2016, Carlo Petersen wrote that the Rhodes Must Fall movement inspired students at Harvard Law School to successfully petition for the removal of the school’s crest, which he describes as showing “three men buckled under the weight of sheaths of wheat. It was modelled on the Royall family crest. Plantation owner Isaac Royall was a notorious 18th century slaver who bequeathed land to Harvard College to establish the first professorship in law at the school” (#RMF inspires Harvard).
While the crest of Harvard Law School does consist of three sheaths of wheat, echoing the Royall family crest, its design does not include the silhouettes of three men.
The design that does include the silhouettes was created by Marium Khawaja, a member of the Royall Must Fall movement, who said the image creates “a more accurate” representation (“Harvard Law“). It is the emblem used by the Royall Must Fall movement.
The trouble I am having is not whether Petersen has the facts right. The trouble I am having is that in its Facebook feed, Rhodes Must Fall reproduces the Khawaja crest in a post celebrating the influence of the movement, “RMF spokesperson Alex Hotz said the movement was honoured to know that its ‘decolonisation efforts’ at UCT were inspiring students abroad. ‘It gives us renewed energy when we see that what we are doing here has inspired others abroad. The decolonial concept of Rhodes Must Fall has never been just for UCT’.” (UCT: Rhodes Must Fall)
This post follows by two hours another post about a silent protest on the campus of the University of Cape Town.
But there is otherwise at this time no more information about this protest which looks to involve sheets covered in writing being dipped in tubs by a person whose outstretched arms support the pole from which those sheets are suspended. Others holding signs also have their mouths tapped.