UJ to host symposium on debates about public art

​Co-convened by Prof Brenda Schmahmann, SARChI Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and Prof Kim Miller, Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of women’s and gender studies and art history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, an exciting international conference on public art will be taking place between Wednesday, 15 November 2017 until 18 November 2017. Entitled “Troubling Histories: Public Art and Prejudice”, the event is being hosted by Prof Schmahmann at 33 Twickenham Avenue, across the road from the Auckland Park Kingsway campus.

“In March 2015, a small-scale protest against Marion Walgate’s sculpture of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town developed into the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. Raising questions about public monuments commemorating individuals or events associated with oppression, it had the additional impact of reigniting a longstanding international concern about steps that should be taken to negotiate ‘problematical’ public art inheritances,” says Prof Schmahmann.

She notes also that “Contention around the retention of images of Rhodes highlighted widespread concerns about how public art has tended to recognise some histories and experiences while marginalising others. Unsurprisingly, endeavours to negotiate prejudicial art from the past have been simultaneous with the creation of new monuments and memorials that seek to recognise victims of oppression or atrocities, some of which have had a successful reception while others have proved controversial”.

Presenters in this conference, most of whom are international, will explore individual case studies from various geographies across the globe. Some focus on the removal, retention or mediated display of historical sculptures, memorials and other public commemorations associated with oppression while others focus on new monuments that engage with troubled histories.

The keynote speaker for the conference is Erika Doss, Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the USA, whose address is titled “Taking History to Task: Cultural Vandalism and Memorial Mania”. A highly regarded scholar of public art and monuments, Prof Doss’ many publications include Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, which she published in 2010.

The conference will see the launch of Public Art in South Africa: Bronze Warriors and Plastic Presidents, co-edited by Professors Schmahmann and Miller. In this lively and timely volume, contributors examine statues and memorials as well as performance, billboards, and other temporal modes of communication in South Africa. Revealing how public visual expressions articulate histories and memories, they explore how such works may serve as a forum in which tensions surrounding race, gender, identity, or nationhood play out.

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