Why the preoccupation with the naked Black body UCT?

2014-07-03 07:16

As you walk in the UCT Oppenheimer Library, you are met with a portrait of a naked white man, on his lap is a black woman, they seem to be having sexual intercourse. The white man has a black mask and the black woman has a white mask. If one goes one level up, you will see a metal sculpture of the naked Sarah Baartman, as you turn to your right, you will be met with another portraits depicting a black woman sitting on what I assume to be a rock with her three children in their underwear in a plastic basin bathing, the surrounding is of a poor dwelling.

As one continues with his tour around UCT, walking into Otto Beit building coming from the food court, on your left, you will be met with a portrait of a bull; inside it is a black man with his genitals exposed. Besides the bull is a little white girl and an Afrikaner man. If one goes to middle campus, you will see several black painted sculptures also with their genitals out in the open, one will also find a similar sculpture in Hoerikwaggo building.

At the entrance of the new Chemical Engineering Building, there is a portrait depicting the poor settlements of what seems to be Khayalisha or Langa. A similar portrait depicting the poor dwelling of black people can be found in the Mafeje room, where the university council meets.

Lest my point becomes redundant, I will halt there on indicating the location of various artworks. I think I have made my point. I would urge members of the UCT community to be vigilant, take a walk around campus in your free time and see for yourself what I speak of. There are many more portraits, sculptures and paintings scattered around campus which do not portray black people in a good way.

There is little from UCT institutional symbolism that says “Black child be proud” of your upbringing and in who you are. If the institution really wanted to depict history, why is there no portraits and sculptures of Kwame Nkrumah, Miriam Makeba, Robert Sobukwe, Shaka Zulu, and individuals like Chief Albert Luthuli for example? Why is there no portrait of Timbuktu, the first university to be created, which is located in Africa? If it is history UCT wants to portray, let it not be a skewed one.

Why are there numerous paintings depicting demeaning and humiliating aspects of our past and current circumstance as the black people, yet not even a handful of paintings showing the same of white people? One could legitimately ask; “is this by design or chance?” The latter is not convincing, so I will settle with the former.

Higher institutions of learning, especially previously white only, should reassess all the paintings and sculptures that they have displayed some inappropriate paintings might have been put up pre-1994 and further institutions should be cautious about what is being displayed in the new dispensation. I share the same views with those that say art must be provocative and should be used to depict our history, and further believe that we should infringe upon its role as minimal as possible.

Granted some of the portraits are not demeaning and humiliating in and of themselves, but my concern is not necessarily with individual portraits but with the message the collective paintings are saying about someone of my pigmentation.

In the whole university, I could only find two portraits of the naked white body and rarely will the portraits on the walls depict something demeaning or humiliating of white people. Already the institution is filled with sculptures and statues portraying dominant white males such as the infamous Cecil John Rhodes. Even the names of buildings are dominated by white people.

I have noted two broad themes being recurrent on UCT’s paintings; poverty of black people and the naked black body, more so, the genitalia of the black man. These artworks reinforce the inferiority complex of the black student while concurrently reaffirming the superiority complex of the white student.

All this depiction of black poverty is meant to romanticize poverty. This reminds me of European exchange students who come to Africa for the sole purpose of experiencing poverty and thereby reinforcing their satisfaction about their privileged conditions. I have had quite a few of them boast over having lived for six months in poor conditions and then claim to understand the living conditions of black people in the country, how absurd.

The institutional symbolism around our campus, together with the institutional culture, constitutes the most vivid form of UCT’s eurocentricity. How then can an African student identify with UCT?

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