Is UCT justified in taking down artworks that could cause offence?
Is it obscuring history and infringing freedom of expression?
In February this year, the University of Cape Town (UCT) released a statement saying that veteran photographer David Goldblatt had decided to withdraw his eponymous collection from the university’s Libraries Special Collections and move it to Yale University in the US. The statement noted that Goldblatt "could not be persuaded out of his view that freedom of expression, artistic freedom and rights of artists were no longer protected at UCT".
Goldblatt’s decision was a reaction to UCT’s decision to take down or cover up more than 70 artworks displayed on campus that were considered to be potentially offensive to students. His action, broadly understood, is a gesture of protest; but there’s possibly something less monumental mixed in too, like pique, and pragmatism.
"I am not an activist and I am not interested in politics," says Goldblatt. "I completely disagree with the policy at UCT and to have left my work in the collection there would have been tantamount to endorsing that policy."
The symbolic loss for SA is that one of its preeminent artistic figures has chosen another home for his work. An important part of SA’s heritage will be preserved outside the country.
However, he adds: "I will insist that there has to be a digital archive made available and maintained and updated in SA."
But UCT vice-chancellor Max Price seems to suggest that aspects of SA’s history are better preserved outside its public institutions.
In a recent News24 article, he explains the removal of artworks from public spaces at UCT in terms of institutional racism, which he defines as a subtly entrenched set of values or a "cultural blindness" that is reflected in the life of an institution, and which devalues the lives of certain groups — in this case, black students at UCT.
In his article, Price makes specific mention of documentary photographers Peter Magubane, David Goldblatt, Paul Weinberg, and Omar Badsha, whose works might have been "intended to reveal the callousness of apartheid", but that nevertheless depict black people as desolate and dehumanised. "Photographs of white people, in the same collection, portray them as powerful, privileged overlords."
It is Price’s contention that, to born-free students, the photos amount to "a parade of black people stripped of their dignity and whites exuding wealth and success". He says this is the case even if one is familiar with the historical context of the photographs and the photographers, who would have "intended them as ammunition in the struggle against apartheid".
The focus on photography in discussions about UCT’s art collection seems to point beyond the question of freedom of expression, and to the question of how history is represented.
In his response to Price’s article, first published in the Art Times, art critic Ivor Powell points out, for the record, that "the university does not own any works by Peter Magubane and Omar Badsha in its art collection". In addition to clarifying the facts, Powell also discusses at length his reservations with UCT’s position and its approach to removing artworks, which has aroused suspicion and outrage among many commentators.
Price’s statement that the display of certain works from UCT’s collection around the campus amounts to institutional racism makes his claims — along with those of the art task team investigating the UCT art collection — that the university is protecting the works by removing them, seem dubious.
Goldblatt certainly thinks so.
His chief complaint was that he saw the removal of some, rather than all, works to be the problem — a silencing of particular voices.
UCT media manager Elijah Moholola says: "There is, clearly, no contradiction whatsoever over the reasons behind the removal of artworks. UCT has repeatedly stated that the artworks were removed for a variety of reasons."
The art task team found that the collection included "more white artists and artworks produced by white artists than there are those by black people as broadly defined". Excluding statues and plaques, the collection was skewed towards representations of men — 53% — and whites — 79%.
It does, however, reflect UCT’s policy of "acquiring works by UCT and UCT-affiliated artists", which "reproduced the racial composition of staff and students of the art school, who were and are still, mostly white".
Daniel Herwitz, philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, noted in a recent article that his suggestion to Price when they discussed the issue was for the university to add to the collection rather than take away from it.
He suggested "some trenchant images of white people in states of victimhood, of white nakedness, of a diversity of suffering, as for example [former constitutional court judge] Albie Sachs has done in celebrating the constitutional court with an abundance of all manner of images, representing a diversity of people in the throes of pain but also beauty and freedom, representing a diversity of tradition and invention".
Herwitz is right that the art collection at the constitutional court is an outstanding example of how art can exist in a proper democracy. As an institution and a building, the court is a benchmark of transformative symbolism, and the art collection plays no small part in that.
Like UCT’s collection, which doesn’t have a dedicated gallery, the art at Constitution Hill is woven into the very fabric of the institution and its architecture.
Price is admirably intent on creating an institutional culture that, as he put it last year in a speech at a conference on restitution in SA, should restore a sense of belonging and dignity among students at the university.
There is a sense, however, that just as there is something simply pragmatic about Goldblatt withdrawing his archive from an institution at which he no longer believes it is safe or valued, Price, too, is being pragmatic in his approach.
But there is an alternative position. As Karel Nel and Bronwyn Law-Viljoen write in their essay "Art and Justice" in the book of the same name, the constitutional court’s art collection was conceived to "explicate the constitution and, in the process, transform the building into a welcoming place of beauty and warmth".
Silencing the past, removing public reminders that once there was a very real and meaningful struggle against racial oppression, amounts to a coded way of removing or obscuring the history not just of UCT, but of apartheid. To do so to flatter the current student body, or at least to try to preserve their self-esteem, is limiting both in its understanding of the potential of students to engage with art more meaningfully, and of the power of art to play a meaningful role in an institution’s transformation.
Nel and Law-Viljoen contrast the typical curatorial strategies for public or corporate art collections, which tend to be governed by a mixture of current trends and "the vagaries of the art market", with the approach Sachs took at the constitutional court.
They invoke the "political notion of generosity" in their description of the conception of the court’s art collection: "A turning back to a shared past in order to remind ourselves of our responsibility for the failures of our history and to acknowledge the possibility of a shared humanity as we face the future."
This is expressed in an economy of giving conceived not as "exchange as reciprocity", which would be characterised as "an eye for an eye", but as "an economy of giving, even of sacrifice (in the sense of giving with little thought for the loss one feels)" that has the real power to transform. This is a bit more complex than an idea of affluence as dignity.
It was recently announced that a consultative process would begin at UCT in the second semester and that various seminars will be held "to discuss different artworks and symbols".
Moholola says: "An outline of the planned seminars is expected to be finalised by the end of next week."
Still, it looks as if the control that is being exercised over how the collection should be perceived seems unnecessarily reductive. Who knows what the exhibitions, seminars, consultations and discussions at UCT this coming semester will involve. Whether they will lead to greater tolerance or further protest and censorship remains to be seen.
But rather than treating the issue of the university’s art collection as a problem to be solved, it should be seen as one of the most effective means of transformation there is.
Removing public reminders that once there was a very real and meaningful struggle against racial oppression, amounts to a coded way of obscuring history