Statues still cast sinister shadows, says Cape Town artist

2015-05-07 15:34

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Cape Town- Striking blood-red casts of Jan van Riebeeck’s arms and walking cane protrude from a wall in an ancient building in Venice, Italy, stumping visitors who peek behind to see if the rest of the colonialist is there.

Finding nothing, they return their gaze to the artwork and its ghostly shadow, perhaps contemplating the line between truth and lie, reality and fiction.

So Cape Town-born artist Haroon Gunn-Salie, 26, describes how people have experienced his work during the preview days at the SA pavilion, which is part of the 56th Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that is set to officially open later this week.

The urethane limbs and cane are cast from Van Riebeeck’s statue in Adderley Street, Cape Town.

A two-man team assists the artist by applying thick layers of pink silicon to a portion of the statue, which is left for a few hours to set. It is then removed without leaving a trace and capped with fibreglass so it can be used as a mould.

The art display in Italy is a precursor to his Soft Vengeance exhibition later this year, in which he plans to display aluminium casts of Van Riebeeck’s hands and cane as well as the hands of four other local statues.

‘Blood on their hands’

These are the Cecil John Rhodes statue in Company’s Garden, the Bartholomew Dias statue in Adderley Street, the Paul Kruger statue in Krugersdorp and the Carl von Brandis statue at the Johannesburg High Court, which looks west towards what used to be the gold fields.

The exhibition is a comment on the power dynamics of statues and memorials.

Gunn-Salie had initially been planning for a year-and-a-half "an act of vandalism" to memorials in all local major cities, but had to change his approach after the rise of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

It touched him as a former University of Cape Town fine arts student, and sparked an onslaught of attacks on statues across the country.

“I realised that the leaders [depicted] in the statues actually have blood on their hands - the blood of our people, the blood of stolen land, the blood of slavery and oppression,” he told News24 from Venice on Wednesday.

It was his view that memorials not only dwarfed an individual’s reality with their height and size, but reinforced the idea of power through their permanence.

“It is really problematic for people to constantly be looking at this memorial and always be inferior to these colonial legacies.”

‘Smuggling’ Van Riebeeck back home

Invited to participate in the South African group exhibition at the biennale, he decided to take parts of Van Riebeeck with him to Europe, following President Jacob Zuma’s comments earlier this year, in which he reportedly stated that the colonialist’s arrival disrupted the country’s cohesion, repressed people and caused wars.

“If the problem began with colonialism, then it is only appropriate that he be smuggled out of Africa into Italy and Europe, back home.”

With a last-minute change in plans, Gunn-Salie could not afford to wait two weeks for his work to go through customs and ‘smuggled’ Van Riebeeck’s limbs by declaring it as a prototype with no value, which he believed was neither untrue or illegal.

The parts arrived after a delay in Abu Dhabi and with a slight crack that was easily fixed, none of which could take away from Gunn-Salie’s first trip to Europe and a foreign experience he described as “mind-blowing”.

Soft Vengeance was also informed by a spate of xenophobic violence that recently broke out, prompting him to think about identity, what it meant to be African, and how that linked with sculptures in the public domain.

Political problems

He said a critical flaw was that there was no public space in the country educating citizens that everyone is African.

He believed it was short-sighted for people to call for new memorials.

“People need to understand the political problems with the current memorials are the same problems with the commissioning of the new memorials.

“For it to solve the problem, it has to be done in a truly democratic way that actually takes into account various perspectives and identities, not perpetuate the idea that South Africa is different from the rest of Africa.”

Gunn-Salie’s full statue installation will be displayed at his first solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on August 29. He also plans to exhibit in Cape Town before the end of the year.

Read more on:    italy  |  art  |  monuments debate

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