In monumental colour

2012-08-10 08:12

On the back of an artist’s interaction with settler statues in South Africa, Percy Mabandu looks at public monuments and their place in the cultural transformation debate

If we are what we wear, then too, the way we decorate our shared environment tells the world who we are.

Statues, street names and other monuments represent us to those that seek to understand us.

A conflicting architecture merely reflects its makers.

South Africa is a country of many contested monuments.

Our historical project to remake ourselves, and create a new transformed social identity gives us a higher propensity for conflict.

This is a result of previously separate public identities struggling to speak in a singular voice.

Mauritian-born artist Doung Anwar Jahangeer understands this all too well.

Having settled in Cape Town since his migration, he has been engaged in a series of performance works in which he defaces the statues of European colonial settlers.

Jahangeer, famous for his imaginative-architecture walkabouts at the National Arts Festival, has been given permission by various cities to literally paint the town red.

Notable among his performances is the family sculpture that stands at the Settlers National Monument in Grahamstown.

In the work, he paints the figures with red earth as if to alter their racial identities.

Seen differently, the figures seem to be performing “red face” – as opposed to black face of minstrelsy.

Hence, they take on a new identity.

Also codified is the cultural practice of African spiritual initiates who wear red earth during rituals.

Rural women, too, across the African continent smear themselves with the clay for cosmetic reasons, apparently to lighten their complexions.

In another performance, Jahangeer transformed the statue of Queen Victoria in Durban and titled it Ma Dlamini.

The white stone image of the queen becomes Africanised and is even given an Nguni name.

So that by dressing the imperial queen in the soil she has colonised, he equalises or brings her onto a common ground.

His work speaks to a broader South African issue: that the stereotypes of our national debate on curating a new democratic public memory is strikingly dichotomous.

On the one hand, it pits black people talking about a need to transform our museums and monuments; and on the other hand, there are the old-order whites bemoaning the deterioration of these institutions.

A few years ago, this dichotomy found a sharp expression.

Then minister of arts and culture Pallo Jordan came under fire from leaders of the Afrikaner community.

They were vociferously protesting what they called a “vertrapping” – a trampling of their heritage.

Jordan had indicated the department’s desire to bring the Anglo-Boer War Women’s Memorial Monument or Vrouemonument up to date.

The memorial was unveiled in December 1913 in memory of about 27 000 Afrikaner women and children who died in British concentration camps during the South African War.

However, historical research estimates, based on actual graves examined, that at least 20 000 black women
and children died in the same camps.

According to historian Garth Benneyworth, if we consider that in many cases there are non-existent British records, and the fact that many civilians died outside of the camps, the final death toll is higher.

Responding to the minister’s talk of transforming the monument, about 200 Afrikaners led by the Afrikaner Kultuurbond gathered at the site to ensure that the monument remained an Afrikaner symbol.

Speaking at the demonstration, the chairperson of the Verkenner Culture Group, Henk van der Graaff, said that everybody should know the land on which the monument stands is Afrikaner property.

“This is Boer [Afrikaner] land and there is no place for the Winnie Mandelas, Phumziles and Saartje Baartmans. This is not negotiable,” he said.

Tempers flared, all in the name of a monument.

There are other memorial sites which seem out of kilter with the times and have no one to question or defend them.

Think here of the monument dedicated to victims of terrorism in Pretoria. It stands in the city centre on the corner of Van Der Walt and Vermeulen streets, now renamed Lilian Ngoyi and Madiba respectively.

The site is a block away from where the JG Strijdom memorial used to be.

It is the infamous site on which Barend Strydom, the “Witwolf”, went on a shooting spree in 1989, killing eight
black people.

The terrorism monument was ironically installed in 1989.

Though now dilapidated, it belongs to a time when freedom fighters were still considered terrorists.

These include members of the ANC and PAC.

There are also statues like that of Dick King in Durban.

The epitaph on the side of the statue’s plinth says he once saved the city of Durban. However, ask any young person what he did or who he is, no one seems to know.

King is not alone in the hinterland of memory.

The Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg had an outsized portrait of Queen Victoria imperiously reigning over its main stairway.

This exclusive pride of place was obviously problematic in a new, post-colonial country.

In his book titled Mounting Queen Victoria, Steven Dubin writes about the gallery’s efforts to deal with the related politics.

He points to how the gallery has since commissioned a painting depicting King Cetshwayo kaMpande, Shaka’s successor, to balance the British queen’s influence.

Now the two paintings hang side-by-side on the walls that were once the private reserve of the European monarch.

The tale of these two images bear witness to the slippery nature of curating and fashioning a new public memory.

There are many monuments that go unnoticed, let alone celebrated or acknowledged.

Jahangeer’s work at best could help us refocus attention on these amorphous memorials that mark our spaces.

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