09 April 2015

The recent events surrounding the removal of the Rhodes statue have passed from the heat of the front page; the reading audience has been desensitised to the point where this article becomes yet another voice added to the continuing back-and-forth. I would even venture to say that arguments concerning the statue are oversaturated in the media. Yet, today, Thursday 9 April, discussion has moved to the University of Cape Town Council’s vote to remove the Rhodes Statue, and to the mass meeting that takes place in Azania House (previously Bremner Building).

However, this was not the situation almost two weeks ago, in the light of the first public forum held at the University. In conjunction with this event, Michaelis School of Fine Art held its own unofficial open forum. It seems strange that a campus so rooted in the study of the visual be delayed in involvement with the issue, merely because of geographic separation, yet the debate lost no time in addressing the situation. Hosted within the context of the First-year’s Foundation lecture slot, we as first years were requested to open the debate with proposals of reinterpretation of the space post-removal of the statue. These ideas are addressed in length by my peer Bulumko Mbete’s preceding article.

As such, I shall defer interested readers to her work, and refrain from analysing a similar sector of the discussion; suffice to mention common themes that ran through the suggestions. Many suggested alternatives ran along the lines of memorialising the events and discussions itself and commemorating the efforts of the student body in the statues removal. These two themes present a good synopsis of discussion surrounding the statue outside its mere removal, which I shall utilise later. Subsequent to these presentations the floor was opened for discussion, and it was then that the true issues began to emerge.

As the discussions coursed between racial representation within an institution, daily racist aggravations, feelings of separation in protests and such issues, what is now a common phrase associated with the campaign became very clear; this is not about the statue, there are bigger issues at play. Unfortunately, throughout the proceeds of the debate, discussion disintegrated into polarised argument, with opinions challenging each other. Although this is perhaps the obvious purpose of a debate, it ended with many feeling that conflict had only been started and not resolved. Personally, I left feeling that too much had been said and not enough heard.

Another forum was consequently organised, this time one for Hiddingh Campus, held at Hiddingh Hall. In search of ‘listening’, I was also an attendee at this forum. I was not disappointed to hear many of the speakers encouraging the act of listening. However, the discussion encouraged ‘listening’ in the passive sense; listening where one instructs and the audience receives, with little room for conversation. Especially within this situation, listening should be an active dialogue between any number of parties. Throughout all of the debates I have encountered surrounding the statue, I have found this situation repeated. Firstly, a situation where opinions are polarised and separative; and secondly where the situation is merely a continuing discussion about discussion itself, or the ideals of the campaign, resulting in essential inaction.

The statue is to be removed into storage, today at 17h00, and the plinth will finally stand empty, and both of these phenomenona become almost irrelevant. Having previously become a divisive right/wrong campaign, there is an opportunity to answer the question that has been present since its inception: what next?

There is currently an installation outside the blessed Fay’s Kitchen, on Hiddingh Campus; an interactive piece asking whether students agree, disagree or wish there was an alternative to Rhodes being removed. I would claim that there perhaps needs to be an alternative to these questions. It is no longer about questioning the validity or aims of the campaign, or the ethics of having the statue removed. It is not even necessarily the questioning of the broader issues at stake. As was the purpose, although not the outcome, of the original first-year forum, the problem is no longer about questions, but about answers. What form will they take? You may think me hypocritical when I say that I have none. But I think that is perhaps the point: the answer cannot come from any one source.

Many of the original first-year ideas presented the idea of student collaboration to reform the space now open for interpretation. This ground is a space for opportunity, an opportunity to be involved in combined creation. Creation, unlike the previous situation of reinterpretation, allows for a combination of ideas. The ground is loaded, yet cleared. As creatives, artists and visual thinkers, we will be involved in this process intimately to assist in re-inventing the space. Perhaps it is not even re-invention or re-interpretation; perhaps it is merely representation truer to the ideals of the university. Defining these ideals is the process ahead of us. One of the channels available is the upcoming Michaelis project where students will be asked to submit suggestions for redesigning the visual image of our university. The answers will come from listening, yes, but mainly from hearing. Questions have been asked; lets make some answers.

Article written by Michaelis first year Fine Art student, Luke Ducray.