South Africa: Art destroyed and censored at University of Cape Town

21 July 2017
The campus of Africa’s leading university – The University of Cape Town (UCT) – has become an unsafe place for art over the past several years.
Protesters carry artworks to be burnt. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

The following blog was written by Gabriel Clark-Brown, publisher and editor of the South African Art Times, owner of the South African Print Gallery in Cape Town, and graduate of the University of Cape Town with a Master’s Degree in Fine Art. The views expressed and research presented in this blog are those of the writer and not of Freemuse.

The campus of Africa’s leading university – The University of Cape Town (UCT) – has become an unsafe place for art over the past several years.

UCT publicly denies that it has censored any art.

However, a contradicting fact remains: “controversial”, “contested”, or “contentious” art continues to be hidden from view after a year and half because “some members of the campus community have identified certain works of art as offensive to them – for cultural, religious or political reasons”.

Thus, UCT has failed to uphold the moral rights of the artists represented in its collections, as well as the rights of freedom of expression and artistic creativity that are enshrined in the South African Constitution.

Artworks Task Team audit
In 2014, UCT student leader Ramabina Mahapa published descriptions in a local newspaper of works – many of them by black South African artists – that he disapproved of for being insufficiently uplifting.

In response, UCT established an Artworks Task Team in 2015, charged with conducting an “audit” of works in its collection along ethnic and gender lines.

In particular, the task team concerned itself with a blacklist of ten works specifically identified by students as “offensive” to them.  This list included works by internationally acclaimed South African artists Breyten Breytenbach, Willie Bester, Diane Victor, David Brown, Vusi Khumalo and Pieter Hugo.

Burning and removal of artworks
In February 2016, amid protests over tuition fees and a shortage of dormitory rooms, students burned 23 works of fine art and portraiture, including five paintings by UCT’s first black MFA graduate, Keresemose Richard Baholo, with titles like ‘Release Our Leaders’ and ‘Rekindling the Torch of Academic Freedom’. Two collages commemorating the life and work Molly Blackburn, an anti-apartheid activist killed in 1985, were also burned.

In the weeks following the burning, 75 photographs and paintings from UCT’s collection, including portraits of Nelson Mandela and the activists Mamphela Ramphele,  Cheryl Carolus, Helen Joseph and Amina Cachalia, were taken down.

In the words of UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price, the works were removed “first … to signal that we have started a process of debate and discussion about how works of art should be displayed” and “second … to protect our art collection, especially those works of art that have become controversial (whether for good reason or not)”.

Alarmingly, the lists of destroyed, removed, and blacklisted works were kept secret by UCT until it complied with a freedom of information request for their release in early 2017.

The campus of Africa’s leading university – The University of Cape Town (UCT) – has become an unsafe place for art over the past several years.
Students burn art belonging to UCT. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong.

Exhibits and artists also threatened
Two of the blacklisted works, Willie Bester’s sculpture ‘Saartje Baartman’ and Diane Victor’s large drawing ‘Pasiphaë’, were not removed, but were covered up instead; the former with a black cloth and the latter with plywood.  They remain covered.

Additionally, two photographic exhibitions at UCT were shut down by protestors in January 2016 after threats made by members of the Rhodes Must Fall student movement caused UCT to close its ‘Striking 2015: Images at Molly Blackburn Hall’ exhibit.

Two months later, a show commemorating Rhodes Must Fall itself was shut down at its opening after protestors defaced the photographs.  It never reopened.

Artists themselves have also not been spared.  UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art was occupied by protestors for a number of weeks in September and October 2016, and its students and teachers were threatened and denied access to their painting studios.

Aftermath of censorship
In early 2017, UCT suffered the loss of a priceless legacy when photographer David Goldblatt decided to withdraw the archive of his life’s work because he “could not be persuaded out of his view that freedom of expression, artistic freedom and rights of artists were no longer protected at UCT”.

Finally, in February 2017, the Artworks Task Team issued its report, which concluded that “the University of Cape Town must keep artworks that were removed from the walls in storage pending a broader consultative process.”

In practical terms this means that after eighteen months of an already “consultative” process the works in question will continue to be censored indefinitely.

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