The recent #RhodesMustFall campaign provoked vital conversations about the colonial heritage of the country. Understandably, the monuments and artworks representing colonial history created a sense of unease among the students, which was emphasised by the institutional racism of the university. Brenda Schmahmann discusses the impact of these monuments, their naming and the particular changes underway for the 1820 Settler’s Monument in Grahamstown. Schmahmann is the South African Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture at the University of Johannesburg.
These (mostly white) critics fail to grasp the aesthetic and moral assault on one’s entire being that occurs when a black person walks across a campus covered with statues and monuments that celebrate colonial conquerors as heroes. – Eusebius McKaiser
These sculptures serve as a humiliating reminder of the fact that institutions, particularly universities, are not designed for the other. They do not promote decolonisation, transformation or inclusion, but stubbornly continue to attempt to indoctrinate students from all races and classes into a narrow-minded, Westernised ideology.
To those who are unaware of the actual role played by Cecil John Rhodes and apartheid propagators like CR Swart, these statues are merely outdated artworks. Their presence or removal is inconsequential and these demonstrations against them are unnecessary and trivial. This would suggest that these monuments are not successfully serving their purpose, which in post-1994, would be to educate people on colonial history, rather than just being a celebration of it.
“While recognising that monuments of this type are indeed often experienced as profoundly offensive it also needs to be acknowledged that for many, their removal is not motivated by concerns about revising visual culture on campuses as such,” says Schmahmann . “It seems [to be] the first step towards or being symbolic of other kinds of changes which are perceived as much more fundamental.”
Removing a statue does not remove the past. Alternative solutions need to be found, which can mediate between educating people, particularly the youth, about historical events that have contributed massively to how their communities were formed, as well as creating spaces where all South Africans can feel comfortable, belonging and pride.
“I am unconvinced that the removal of objects deemed offensive is an ideal strategy to be followed under less pressing circumstances. While the relocation of works can be constructed, placing works in permanent storage or ensuring their riddance is I think more problematic,” Schmahmann says
Schmahmann suggests that rather than removing these monuments, they should be reworked. By creating art that represents the other side of the colonial story and imposing it in the space of these colonial works, you not only acknowledge a more authentic history, but you empower the stories that were suppressed. “A further strategy for engaging with works associated with values that no longer have currency is to physically modify them temporarily,” says Schmahmann.
A great example of this is the Marion Walgate sculpture of Rhodes at UCT. “On heritage day in 2007, a group of graduates called the Kultural Upstarts Kollektive, embellished the sculpture with soccer regalia, with supersized sunglasses, with adapted miners hat… in the colour of Kaiser Chiefs, and with a vuvuzela,” explains Schmahmann. Referring to member of the Kollektive, Raffaella Delle Donne, Schmahmann notes that modifications like this “challenge the idea that heritage belongs to a static past and to show instead that heritage is an inextricably bound up with a process of looking back as the nation moves forward.” Most importantly, it facilitates a productive conversation, rather than choosing to feign ignorance about the past.
1820 Settler’s Monument
Former Constitutional Court judge, Albie Sachs, joined Schmahmann and Think!Fest convenor Anthea Garman, in a discussion about the 1820 Settler’s Monument in Grahamstown, home of the National Arts Festival.
The large structure stands proudly on the hill, towering over Grahamstown. The Grahamstown Foundation has been working to recolonise the space. “I have enormous respect and admiration for the foundation,” says Sachs. “They do really outstanding work and an enormous amount of educational work; the Science festival and school children come here… they’re working with minimal resources and it’s touch and go.”
Sachs suggests that “new forms of representation produced in a democratic way” is needed. “Something that makes people feel, from all the communities, and certainly the majority, and certainly the people who were settled upon, feel like this is their land, this belongs to them – not exclusively but as much as everybody else.”
In regards to the renaming of the monument, Sachs says, “For the sake of the survival of the building, for the sake of it achieving its purpose of promoting ideas and promoting freedom and openness and speech and so on, I think that the name, the quicker it changes, the better.”
According to the CEO of the National Arts Festival, Tony Lankester, The Grahamstown Foundation is in the process of deciding to change the name. However, as the National Arts Festival are only tenants of the monument, Lankester says they “can’t take a unilateral decision on what to call it.”
Lankester adds, “we don’t refer to the ‘1820 Settler s Monument’ anywhere. Everywhere we mention it, we call it ‘the monument’, because of our taking a position on the subject.”