South Africans’ rage at President Jacob Zuma’s looting of the country for his own benefit, and the battle since December to protect the constitution, symbolised by Zuptagate and Nkandla, echoes another struggle for the country’s soul in art, music and other forms. The country’s citizens must ensure that the tide of anger and frustration does not obliterate precious things in its path. The burning of 23 artworks at the University of Cape Town during a student protest in February is an ominous portent.
In contrast to this cultural barbarism, South Africa also has visionaries cultivating South African art, such as entrepreneur Benji Liebmann, who established a huge sculpture garden in the Cradle of Humankind, north-west of Johannesburg, called Nirox. It is open to the public a few months each year, featuring works by celebrated sculptors such as Nandipha Mntambo, Hannelie Coetzee, Willem Boshoff and others, and offers residencies for selected artists to live there to produce works. In May, the festive opening for 2016 takes place. Equally bold, Liebmann’s son Jonathan is the developer of Maboneng arts precinct in Johannesburg’s CBD, where well-known and rising artists have studios.
South Africans should be highly sensitive to artworks’ desecration. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote prophetically in 1821: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
UCT’s vice chancellor Max Price faces an unenviable task in trying to hold the fort against destructive rampages born out of the students’ #RhodesMustFall movement. But it seems he has already surrendered a significant point of principle.
The university has reacted to student violence by taking down or covering dozens of its artworks that might be considered “offensive”. Its large collection includes 1,100 pieces displayed in 50 buildings on five campuses by 520 South African artists. The important Porer collection includes works by noted artists such as Steven Cohen, Cecil Skotnes, Pippa Skotnes, Marion Arnold, Guy Tillim, Malcolm Payne, Mark Hipper and Paul Stopforth. Others include Diane Victor, who has expressed dismay at the covering of her work.
A UCT Task Team is assessing the collection through the prism of the “transformation” of the new South Africa, particularly seeking pieces which might offend for how they depict black people, and looking – according to its brief – for artworks that “may be seen to recognise or celebrate colonial oppressors”.
According to whose artistic viewpoint are these decisions being made? In recent weeks more than 70 works, some by the country’s best artists, have been taken down or covered. Among them, Willie Bester’s Saartjie Baartman and anti-apartheid playwright Breyten Breytenbach’s painting Hovering Dog. Others whose works have taken the chop include William Kentridge, Stanley Pinker and Zwelethu Mthethwa.
These dangerous trends have echoes from tragic history. During the Second World War in areas under Nazi control, Hitler sought to rid Europe of what he considered ‘degenerate art’. Hundreds of paintings were removed from museums, many eventually going up in flames in symbolic burnings. The Nazis also looted many of the best works of European art – the ones Hitler considered not degenerate.
European museum officials acted assertively. The Allied armies assembled a team of museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the “Monuments Men” who accompanied the forces, attempting to minimise damage to European monuments, architecture, and artworks. They also tracked down art stolen and hidden by the Nazis in hundreds of repositories in mines, castles and other places.
With South Africa’s history of white domination and contempt for black people, one can understand black students’ ire at pieces they find offensive. Some of UCT’s halls are adorned with portraits of dead white men in colonial mode, evoking discomfort. To add to this is the dominant colonial-era architecture, influencing the students’ experiences.
However, great art can come from anywhere, notwithstanding the artist’s politics. JH Pierneef’s landscape paintings, for example, are exceptional despite his racism and role in the Broederbond. His racial views on society might be offensive to many, but his art is highly acknowledged. Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery recently hosted a major exhibition of his works.
For many Jews, Wagner’s music has been shunned because of his anti-Semitism and status as Hitler’s favourite composer. For years, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra did not play Wagner. Yet classical music without him would be infinitely poorer. And looking from the other side, some of the world’s greatest, provocative artists have been Jews, such as the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s – Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and others.
In South Africa, performance artist Steven Cohen has rocked many boats with his wildly provocative depictions of Jewish and South African themes. However, he has become a celebrated artist in France – where he now lives – and elsewhere, although still reviled by some.
South Africa’s cultural battle, like the political one, will be fought for many years to come. Its post-apartheid identity is in flux. The best art provokes questioning. If we only allow sanitised, politically correct works which toe the “party line”, society will be the worse for it. Art which disturbs must be countered not by destroying it, but producing other art.
Populist politicians pursuing their agendas through narrow racial prisms are rampant in South Africa. This is as dangerous in politics as it is in the arts.
At Nirox, there are magnificent works by sculptors such as Angus Taylor, which viewed through the narrow lens of racial rage, might be interpreted as “offensive” to some. With any luck, the burning mobs will not get there; or if they do, hopefully the lovers of great art will be there to protect them and the society’s cultural future.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)