… what is it about people that makes them so susceptible to being offended by images? And why is the response to the offensive image so often a reciprocal act of violence…[1]

The Rhodes Must Fall exhibition, in the Centre for African Studies, was dismantled recently with very few having ever had the chance to see it.

The exhibition was disrupted by the Trans Collective as they felt their presence hadn’t been properly represented, or acknowledged, in the exhibition and the RMF movement as a whole. They smeared red paint on the walls, and framed photographs, and lay naked in the entrance ways saying that if one wanted to enter the exhibition they would have to walk over a trans person. The curator, Paul Weinberg, closed the exhibition after this, not to reopen it again.

On the occasion of the well-attended RMF exhibition, RMF aligned trans people once again put themselves on the line by physically disrupting the cishetero patriarchy within the movement generally and the erasure and tokenism in the exhibition particularly.[2]

With this in mind, the CCA, thought we would take a look at disrupted art and disrupted art spaces.

One example of a disrupted sculpture is Michelanglo’s David (1501-1504), whose genitals have often been covered by a fig leaf as a form of censorship against public nudity. Although sometimes disruptions seem to add more than they cover-up. Famously many have tried to, and some have succeeded, in urinating into Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) including South Africa artist Kendell Geers who managed to do just this in Venice in 1993. This has, largely, been seen as adding to the work, and its general message, rather than critiquing, or disrupting, it ).[3]

Man Ray, another Dadaist artist, created the work Object to be Destroyed in 1923 and, in 1957, his wish came true when a group of students calling themselves the Jarvistes, and protesting against Dadaist art, stole the work from an exhibition in Paris, and shot it outside in the street, destroying it. Man Ray took the money he got for insurance, from this, and used it to create one hundred copies of the work titling them Indestructible Object (1963).[4]

More contemporary examples include Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary at the Sensation (1999-2000) exhibition in New York where a man covered the work in white paint claiming he found it offensive and blasphemous.[5] At the Tate Modern Ai Weiwei had an exhibition titled Sunflower Seeds (2011) where he had different specialist workers in China make millions of lifelike, porcelain, sunflower seeds commenting on the “Made in China” label.[6] Later, an art group who call themselves IOCOSE, came into the gallery and threw real sunflower seeds, that looked identical to the porcelain ones, onto the artwork, commenting on a quote of Ai Weiwei’s : “what you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means”.[7] They called this intervention Sunflower Seeds on Sunflower Seeds.[8]

To take examples from contemporary South African art works we can look at Zanele Muholi who had artwork up at an exhibition in 2009, at Constitution Hill, called Innovative Women. Muholi had to deal with the minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, walking out of the exhibition, before she was meant to make her speech, and causing a scene whilst labeling the work, that had lesbian subject matter, as “immoral”.[9] Then there was The Spear, what happened here was not too unlike what happened to The Holy Virgin Mary and Muholi’s work. The Spear (2012), a painting by Brett Murray, depicted president Jacob Zuma with his penis exposed. Firstly, Zuma tried to have the painting taken down, and then, more like the sensation around Ofili’s work, a citizen painted a red ‘x’ over the genital area of the painting[10] With disruptions like these one might start to think of them less as interruptions and more as a type of censorship. Especially when they’re coming from the government. But this, obviously, isn’t always the case.

The Occupy Movement (which started with the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations) tried to translate their politics into art. This was done both at Documenta 13 and the 7th Berlin Biennale, where they took Joseph Beuys’ (who exhibited at Documenta 7) statement “everyone is an artist” into consideration, claiming everyone has a voice and should be able to express it creatively, one way or another, and, not only this, but that they should be included.[11] Perhaps this is partly what the Trans Collective wanted too? Generally, however, these things are the other way round, that is; art is often made into something political, or something more political than it was to begin with, or at least this is often the case with art that has been disrupted, whereas politics is very rarely made into something more artistic through disruptions. But can it be?

If one considers art to be the appropriate instrument to promote political ideas, the next step is to declare the political action itself an art work.[12]

Can one then, call the disruption, itself, art? Or is it censorship? Could the disrupted RMF exhibition not have opened leaving the Trans Collective’s additions intact and using it as a way of including those who felt left out into the exhibition? And was closing the exhibition not a form of censorship in itself?

When does a disruption add to art? And when does it detract? And why do we care?

Going back to the first quote, in this text, we often seem to have violent reactions to images, as though they are living things which we wish to hurt in order to hurt the messages behind them. W.T.J Mitchell (whose quote is the first one spoken of) also says:

…we need to reckon with images not just as inert objects that convey meaning but as animated beings with desires, needs, appetites, demands, and drives of their own.[13]

Images are powerful, they offend and cause reactions and if the above quote is true perhaps we should be interacting with them. Can we add to art works in a constructive way without censoring them or destroying them? Or will any kind of interruption disrupt our rules and leave us feeling unsettled [14] – even when not questioning them causes others pain.

And is being unsettled by art all that bad?



[1] Mitchell, W.J.T. Offending Images. In: Unsettling “Sensation”. New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press,  2001.

[2] UCT: The Trans Collective. TOKENISTIC, OBJECTIFYING, VOYEURISTIC INCLUSION IS AT LEAST AS DISEMPOWERING AS COMPLETE EXCLUSION. Available:https://www.facebook.com/transfeministcollective/posts/1132209633512418 [2016, May 4].

[3] Fountain (Duchamp). Wikipedia. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp) [2016, May 4].

[4] Object to be destroyed. Wikipedia. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object_to_Be_Destroyed [2016, May 4].

[5] Quito, Anne. Chris Ofili’s controversial, dung-decorated Virgin Mary painting sold for 4.6 million. Quarts. http://qz.com/441976/chris-ofilis-controversial-dung-decorated-virgin-mary-painting-sold-for-4-6-million/ [2016, May 4].

[6] The Tate Modern. The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds. Available: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds [2016, May 4].

[7] Garrett, Mark. Disrupting the gaze: art intervention and the Tate Gallery. Furtherfield. Available: http://www.furtherfield.org/features/disrupting-gaze-art-intervention-and-tate-gallery [2016, May 5].

[8] IOCOSE. Sunflower Seeds on Sunflower Seeds. Available: http://www.iocose.org/works/sunflower_seeds_on_sunflower_seeds [2016, May 4].

[9] Van Wyk, Lisa. Xingwana: Homophobic claims ‘baseless, insulting’. The Mail and Guardian. Availble: http://mg.co.za/article/2010-03-05-xingwana-homophobic-claims-baseless-insulting [2016, May 4].

[10] Bauer, Nickolaus. Zuma painting defaced to ‘prevent civil war’. Mail and Gaurdian. Availble: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-05-23-zuma-painting-defaced-to-prevent-civil-war [2016, May 4].

[11] Loewe, Sebastian. When protest becomes art: the contradictory transformations of the Occupy Movement at Documenta 13 and Berlin Biennale 7. Field. Availble:

http://field-journal.com/issue-1/loewe [2016. May 4].

[12] Ibid

[13] W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005

[14] Shuster, J Marl. Who should pay (for the arts and culture)? Who should decide? And what difference does it make? In: Unsettling “Sensation”. New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press,  2001.