UJ NRF Research Chair in SA Art and Visual Culture on toppled statues and fallen icons

Professorial Inaugural address: Brenda Schmahmann

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, huge sculptures of Lenin or Stalin have been toppled from their pedestals and ended up in various sculpture parks that were established to contain them. But, until recently, South Africa had not seen this kind of response to art works that are bound up with ideologies that have fallen out of favour. In the immediate post-apartheid context, where the focus was on reconciliation, it was instead felt that different cultural groupings should each be granted opportunities for people and incidents pertinent to their histories and identities to be commemorated in the public domain.

Brenda Schmahmann, a Professor with a research specialisation and, from 2016, the NRF Research Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture, points out that universities may have sometimes removed or relocated small artworks. But in keeping with the approach in the national arena had tended to leave alone large sculptures and monuments. She points out that a notable departure from this approach occurred at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in April 2015 when, following protests, the institution’s Council ratified a decision by its Senate to permanently remove from campus Marion Walgate’s large and imposing sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes. Prof Schmahmann suggests that, while this may well have been the only feasible step the university could have taken in the context of a protest that was rapidly escalating in scale and intensity, the removal of objects is not an ideal strategy to be followed under less pressing circumstances.

Prof Schmahmann will examine the difficulties with removal as an approach to dealing with troublesome visual inheritances when she delivers her inaugural address in the Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Thursday, 5 November 2015.
She will suggest that there are various alternative – and creative – strategies for engaging with objects associated with British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism. “South African universities have, for example, commissioned new works which operate in terms of what the author, James Young, terms “countermonuments” – that is, art objects that not only engage self-critically with the monument as a form of commemoration but also offer alternative perspectives on historical events,” she elaborates.
Prof Schmahmann stresses that artists have also, with permission, temporarily modified older monuments in such a way as to prompt thoughts about heritage and the role that public sculptures associated with outworn ideologies may assume within the present. She introduces a selection of interventions from various universities, contending that – unlike removal – these encourage and enable critical perspectives on our histories that are a necessary precursor to significant institutional change.
Toppled Statues and Fallen Icons: Negotiating Monuments to British Imperialism and Afrikaner Nationalism at Post-Apartheid Universities
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