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“).
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.
In this regard, check out Between 10 and 5 on Facebook.