Young South Africa: Haroon Gunn-Salie | It’s Time to Tell a New Story

Haroon Gunn-Salie

Photo by Ashley Walters


Currently based between Cape Town and Johannesburg, Haroon Gunn-Salie describes his journey as one of “many realisations”. During a gap year in 2008 he considered studying law as a way to further his interest in social justice, activism and grassroots politics. Instead, he’s pursuing these passions in another way: through art. Haroon’s multidisciplinary work is centred on dialogue and exchange and he fosters this through a unique practice of sculptural installation, public art and site-specific interventions. His upcoming debut solo show at the Goodman Gallery, History after apartheid (22 August – 19 September) sheds light on the present contradictions in contemporary South Africa – a place which on the one hand is experiencing a major transition, yet continues to be defined by its long history of oppression and struggle. In our last Young South Africa interview of 2015 we spoke with Haroon about redefining history and our collective power to tell a new story…our own.


Were you always aware that you’d one day pursue a career in the arts/creative sphere, or was there quite a journey to discovering this?


It has been a journey of many realisations to get to this point. I have always been a creative person, encouraged by my mother, who enrolled me into Frank Joubert Art and Design School during primary school. I returned in high school to pursue Spatial Design and Art History as matric subjects.


In a twist of fate perhaps, my passion for art and design drew me to becoming a graffiti artist and I spent a few years trolling the streets of Cape Town. It was during my gap year in 2008 that I was most active in the local graffiti scene; I was working for an NGO, and spent my monthly wages on paint, and any free time painting. At the time, I was considering studying law to further my passion for social justice, activism and grassroots politics.


This took a turn when I decided to produce an application portfolio to study at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. My aunt Jenny Gorman, an amazing painter and artist who studied at Michaelis in the 70s, further encouraged me to apply. Jenny and her late husband Jim Gorman offered to pay for my studies and materials if I got accepted. I was convinced there was no way I would get into the school with my portfolio of graffiti pieces, terribly rendered still life drawings, and poorly drawn portraits. To my surprise however, I was accepted, and began a difficult five-year joust with an untransformed institution.


Witness - Gunn-Salie

Witness, 2012


WITNESS - Turn the other way

Turn the Other Way, 2012


How has the content and aesthetic of your work changed since you first started out? What has driven these developments?


I started out at Michaelis with the intention of furthering my graffiti art by studying New Media and Photography. By third year when choosing a major I ended up studying sculpture for the opportunity to train under legendary artist Jane Alexander. She introduced me to the medium’s reciprocal relation to real life and its ability to be understood as believable objects of the everyday.


Alexander constantly encouraged my left-field practice, going as far as taking an appeal to the UCT senate, to have my graduate body of work WITNESS marked as a site-specific exhibition. And as a public event, as opposed to having the work marked within the confines of the gallery halls of the university campus, as had been the school’s protocol for generations.


The WITNESS exhibition was held in a derelict house bordering District Six, and presented a series of installations, each a container of the narratives of veteran District Six residents, a process of ‘dialogue-based collaboration’.



A year later, while preparing a follow-up exhibition to be held in a new home in the Phase 2 redevelopment of District Six, celebrated as a watershed land restitution example, a grave realisation hit me. Over 100 families were being moved back to an area today called Zonnebloem, renamed during the group areas act to permanently erase the history of the area and its people. This provoked me to create Zonnebloem renamed. The work, which is essentially a site-specific articulation of printmaking, took a more confrontational approach to history and was a further turning point for my practice.


Since graduating I have been developing this practice of sculptural installation, collaboration, intervention and public art. It was an honour to be selected to participate in the Art-54 project seeing the realisation of my piece, Kom Oor Die See as a public artwork on the Sea Point Promenade. This piece was conceptualised as a musing on a South African identity largely defined by diaspora, where home is here and somewhere else simultaneously.


Gunn Salie - Kom Oor Die See

Kom oor die see - Haroon Gunn-Salie

Kom Oor Die See, 2014


Amongst Men was the first artwork I created after being signed by the Goodman Gallery in 2013. The artwork is a homage commemorating Imam Haron, assassinated in police custody in 1969, which features anti-apartheid stalwart poet James Matthews reciting his 1969 poem Patriot or Terrorist.


My upcoming solo exhibition includes new works created in collaboration with his wife Galiema Haron and his daughter Fatiema Haron-Masoet. These works expose the stories of the women who continue his legacy.


Amongst Men

Haroon Gunn-Salie - Amongst Men (2)

Amongst Men, 2014


See a film documentation of Amongst Men


A major element of ‘History after apartheid’, your first solo show at the Goodman Gallery, is a site-specific interactive installation of the same name. What does this piece entail?


Without completely giving the game away, History after apartheid addresses the apartheid security forces’ use of purple dye dispensed from water cannons on armoured vehicles to mark protesters attending mass democracy marches and demonstrations, to identify and arrest those in attendance. This image of purple stained people fleeing police has become iconographic of the mass liberation movement against apartheid.


Similar images marking protestors exist (inspired by the apartheid-invented technique) throughout the global-south today. Pro-democracy protestors in India were blasted with purple dye akin to apartheid, in Israel and Palestine protestors are still drenched in bright cerulean blue, whereas in Uganda police appear particularly fond of luminous pink paint.


A symbolical event towards the end of apartheid was the ‘Purple Rain Protest’ on 2 September 1989 in Cape Town. As the march approached the South Africa’s Parliament, a police water cannon with purple dye hosed thousands of Mass Democratic Movement supporters by security police, resulting in an interesting conclusion. A protester leapt onto the roof of the water cannon vehicle and seized the nozzle, turning the jet away from the crowds and towards the ‘whites only’ office blocks of the Nationalist Party adjacent the protest staining their facades purple four stories high.


Watch: The Day the Purple Governed Cape Town


This exhibition as a whole sheds light on contemporary South Africa as a place that is both in a transitory phase, while still being largely defined by its history of colonialism and apartheid. Could you expand on this, speaking about a few examples of work from the show?


Soft Vengeance is a series of sculptural works dealing with the current controversial Heritage debate in South Africa. The first work in the series was created especially for the South African pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.​ The work draws focus to the lack of transformation in South African heritage and education institutions and public spaces today, a debate that has gripped the South Africa media and polarised the public this year.


Haroon-Gunn Salie - Soft Vengeance

Soft Vengeance, SA Pavilion, 2015


Arguably spurred by ​​President Jacob Zuma, when he said earlier this year: “A man with the name of Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape on April 6 1652 … What followed were numerous struggles and wars and deaths and the seizure of land and the deprivation of the indigenous peoples’ political and economic power … The arrival of Van Riebeeck disrupted SA’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars.”


​Racism and the effects of apartheid and colonialism persist in South Africa today and these enduring symbols of power perpetuate a national consciousness of inferiority. Untransformed public spaces enforce the continuation of this legacy, as concrete reminders of the everlasting and all-powerful colonial legacy that dominate​s and defines the landscape and mindset of the South African people.


South Africa’s negotiated settlement that brought democracy and the policy of reconciliation led by founding President Nelson Mandela meant that, barring certain cases, colonial and apartheid-era figures could remain on their plinths. Following a month-long student-led movement at the University of Cape Town, a statue of British colonist Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the campus on 9 April 2015. Simultaneously, dissent has rung out against these figures country-wide, seeing the defacing of other memorials with different coloured enamel paint. Protestors have also used symbolic acts of ‘necklacing’ statues, and even the dismounting of a soldier, from a memorial to horses who died in the South African war.


Haroon Gunn-Salie 1

Creating a cast from the statue of Carl Von Brandis


The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended symbolic reparations through the changing of street names, production of national and community memorials and the creation of public spaces of memory and dialogue, to counter the oppressive and traumatic legacy of apartheid.


​​These leaders of the past, who stand entrenched in statues, monuments and memorials, both symbolically and through the legacy of undemocratic history, have blood on their hands. The task of restorative justice, twenty-one years into our democracy is vital, in fostering an African identity through transformed public spaces and challenging autocratic symbols of the past, without destroying them. This needs to be done through the inclusion of all, young and old, to set us on a progressive trajectory. South Africa’s public spaces are bereft of symbols of the trauma of the people, past and present. It is a stark reminder of how much work is yet to be done.


Haroon-Gunn Salie - first touch

Creating a cast from the statue of Jan Van Riebeek


As presented in Venice, Soft Vengeance presents the blood-stained hands of Jan Van Riebeek cast directly from a statue of the Dutch colonist in Adderley Street in central Cape Town, the rest of his form implied by the ghosted presence unseen beyond the drywall.


My solo exhibition will be the first time the “colonial collection” will be displayed together with casts of Cecil John Rhodes and Bartholomew Dias from Cape Town, and Carl von Brandis and Paul Kruger in Johannesburg. These dismembered hands will offer both an appropriation and a rearticulating of disquieting symbols of preceding power, and a reflection on what their legacy has engendered.


Haroon-Gunn Salie - Soft Vengeance 1

Soft Vengeance, SA Pavilion, 2015


The way that South Africa’s history is understood and taught is very selective. What needs to change in this regard? Can history be re-taught?


Although strides have been made, post-apartheid nation building has focused on the construction of a national identity as opposed to educating our people of our relationship to the rest of the continent, and our identities as Africans.


History in a pedagogical sense can be re-taught, reversing the current model, which is insistent on the construction of a grand narrative and focuses on lauding individuals. Efforts can be made to focus more on grassroots movements as well as the lesser-known heroes and heroines of the past.


Do you view art as a form of protest? What power does it have to evoke change?


No. I do not necessarily think that art is a form of protest. It can be used to evoke change with great power, but I believe isn’t a form of protest unless it is actually used as an attempt to affect change, as opposed to a distanced reflection on society for the sake of commentary.


What is it about a collaborative approach to the art-making process that appeals to you?


I believe that collaboration is something we as human beings do in every decision we make, there is a need for collaboration because nothing in the world is achievable on one’s own. We innately require others.


My work takes a 360-approach to collaboration in conceptualisation, execution and the work’s reception. Of late, I have been trying to create scenario-based work, setting the conditions under which (when activated by audience interaction) the work becomes art, as opposed to exhibiting completed art pieces.



A weekly homecoming, 2012



Sunday Best, 2012


Do young creatives have a certain responsibility to make work that is a reflection of our time?


Responsibility, in one sense, yes. In the sense that I believe young people in South Africa bare the burden of the past, a lingering hangover from a party to which we were not invited, nor did we attend.


It is important that young creatives understand that only that which is documented stands as a reflection of the times. The collective potential of our voices help liberate and democratise information from the hands of corporates, governments and their propagandists, to tell another story…our story.


What challenges are emerging artists currently facing within the local art community and creative industry? How might we overcome them?


I think that access is a major problem effecting emerging artists in our country. We have a unique situation where our local art scene is based largely on commercial galleries with very few independent institutions set up to promote and foster young talent.


A step towards reversing this is for young creatives to become the independent driving forces behind our own generation. To make our own spaces, define our own voices, and do it on the little to nothing we have.


What is unique, exciting or encouraging about the position of the youth of our country?


In my opinion this transitional South African moment is exciting, one can make a difference even without any resources. When I executed Zonnebloem renamed for example, I hoped but did not expect that all 13 road signs I changed would remain labelled District Six over 2 years later. This is a measurable effect that redefining history is possible.


Zonneblom Renamed

Zonnebloem renamed, Nelson Mandela-Upper Searl, 2013


If you could give a single piece of advice to your generation, what would it be?


“Doen die ding en vra baas later…”


There is a tendency in South Africa to undermine and lessen the views of youth as inferior to our elders. Let us not find ourselves silenced and forced into inactivity by this. Without losing these cultural values of respect, we must construct our own futures, and do so learning from the past but not in spite of it.


Who do you identify as young thought leaders in SA?


I am constantly revolutionised by the inspiring work of The Brother Moves On. They’re merging performance, art and social commentary, in a way that transcends rhetoric.


What are you currently working on or working towards?


I am currently knee-deep in work to complete my first solo exhibition, which opens at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on Saturday 22 August. The exhibition travels to Cape Town for the month of November where it will occupy the second floor of the historic City Hall.


And finally, what will move our country forward?


I think we are on a positive trajectory. There is lots of work to be done to elevate poverty and create an equal South Africa for all who live in it. I believe that much ingenuity is required to cater solutions to our unique issues, and it requires us to learn from the experiences of other Africans, creating a pool of endless knowledge where resources are limitless.


Keep up with Haroon on Twitter and Instagram.


Ascension and decedents

Ascension and Descendants, 2015



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One Comment

  1. This is so stunning am going to share the link with my niece Samantha Hendricks and Jason Roberts my son! Both creative people. Will definitely come to the exhibition in CT! How is it going to be advertised? Petrina Roberts