Monuments and public memory: In conversation with Sean O’ Toole

There are bronze men and women whose dead eyes gaze upon public spaces, and even though they are long gone, their ghosts haunt the present. For years, unlike the Egyptian statue Ozymandias, they stood proud and mostly unaffected by the public during the ongoing and fierce process of decolonisation. Statues of past regimes have insidious influence. They pose no physical threat, but their existence serve as daily reminders of how our colonial past has sculpted an arduous present. South Africa is littered with monuments, of which the majority exemplify ideologies that oppose our constitution.

The defacement and removal of certain monuments has brought international attention to ghastly economic inequalities and pervading institutional racism. These symbolic attacks point towards a greater crises that needs resolution if we’re to prosper as a nation. Symbols are part of identity building and so, in the midst of political, economic and social chaos, we must decide what’s to be done with these stone figures. Some advocate complete removal, while others think they are important reminders of a history we should never repeat.

In response to the public furor, Commune.1’s group exhibition ‘New Monuments‘ brings together artists who explore the ideological complexities of stone commemorations. We spoke with award-winning arts journalist and writer Sean O’ Toole, who has covered the topic extensively, about the dilemmas surrounding the state of our statues.

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‘Sunny Side Push Upsetter With Salt’ by Marlene Steyn

How might we contextualise ‘the monument’ in South African art history? 

Contextualise I’m not so sure, but if I were asked to define I’d say: stolid, figurative, bombastic, nationalistic and totally lacking in irony. I’m not advocating for comedians to become monument commissioners, but we have a history (pre- and post-1994) of allowing po-faced culture apparatchiks to define our public memory. Driving past the statue of Louis Botha outside parliament in Cape Town recently with my much younger brother, he laughed when he saw the words “Farmer Warrior Statesman” inscribed in the plinth. He’s not from Cape Town. It is easy to laugh at the past though, and militate for its removal. Let me quote a very recent example that reiterates all of this. Dali Tambo’s public budget-gobbling National Heritage Monument project now includes some 50 bronze sculptures of people who resisted colonialism and apartheid. An interesting idea that totally lacks imagination and simply quotes as much as reiterates the past. The project includes a ridiculous sculpture of Steve Biko that prompted the same involuntary WTF laughter I heard from my brother when I first saw it in Bloemfontein last year. Biko is now on view in Pretoria.

What role have monuments played and how have they influenced the development and understanding of South African art history? 

In simple terms, they have offered artists a wage, politicians a place to indulge in bluster, thieves a source of free bronze and, in one instance, homeless men a shelter. There was a story that circulated in a Pretoria newspaper – oh I dunno, sometime in the early 1990s – about a group of homeless men camping in the huge plinth holding up the bronze sculpture of Louis Botha at the Union Buildings. It made me smile. As students we used to hang out inside the plinth too on drunken nights. So add source of drunken mischief to my list.

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‘What’s This Monument Thing?’ by Lungiswa Gqunta

What distinctions can be made between public art and monuments? 

I’m sure there is a formal distinction, one that you’d have to enrol in a heritage-interested degree to learn the finer nuances of. In practical terms, Mandela Square with its oversized figurative cartoon sculpted by Kobus Hattingh and Jacob Maponyane is an example of (bad) public art. The Nelson Mandela Capture Site, with its gee-whizz anamorphic outdoor sculpture by Marco Cianfanelli, is an example of a (state-sanctioned) monument. Of course the lines blur, which is why they have university courses on this stuff. To really get a handle on the distinction, read Annie E. Coombes. History after Apartheid (2003) is a good primer. Better still, read Ivan Vladislavić’s collection of short stories, Propaganda by Monuments (1995).

There’s a school of thought that believes monuments validate regimes and affirm their own positions in an attempt to prove timeless. What are your thoughts on this? 

A country that doesn’t acknowledge its history doesn’t know its present, and also doesn’t have a handle on its future. This said, how do we celebrate and mourn our human past, which is what most monuments and memorials are about? Memory is tricky stuff. It is laced with duplicity and grandstanding, worse still treacly nostalgia and kitsch. But the past must not be forgotten. I think stories, even those that lapse into myth, are a more durable form of monument that things made out of tangible stuff like concrete, marble and bronze.

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‘Faith Overboard Part 2’ by Takunda Billiat

Recently, there’s been controversy surrounding the vandalism of artworks at UCT because they are alleged symbols of oppression. Some of the public is of the opinion that tearing down symbols and monuments of the previous regime mimics the oppressor. Do you think monuments are inherently oppressive? 

One of the positive outcomes of the iconoclasm that has gripped UCT especially is the engaging clamour and debate. Remember, art objects, including memorials, are mute. They are inherently passive, unless they involve some audio or kinetic element. They require human engagement to mean something, be it positive or negative. I think the culture wars at UCT are forcing people to take a stand. Whether for or against the removal of a sculpture (or burning of paintings) doesn’t matter, what strikes me as key is that people are animating these dumb objects with words, with emotions, with actions. It is healthy, however cynical some of the actions might strike some.

You’ve written that unmaking history is a “dull logical experience”. Why is that? 

Did I? When? I forget. Lesson: I should write less. But let me argue with myself. Last year I went on a lonely pilgrimage following the route Sol Plaatje followed across the Free State and Eastern Cape in 1913, shortly after the passing of the Natives’ Land Act. Two things are important about this long ago time. One was that labour conditions and land ownership were being rewritten. The other was that broad-based political contest was being drafted. Plaatje was a co-founder of the ANC. Here’s the rub. We’re still living in that history. Unmaking that history is neither dull nor logical. It is friggin’ difficult, and sits at the centre of our current politics.

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‘Mr Reliquary XII’ by Davis Ndungu

In your opinion, besides the events surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement, what are some other key moments in the history of South African art that garnered similar public and political reactions? 

Brett Murray’s Spear painting from 2012, obviously, which was a courageous and necessary action expressed through a ropey work. And further back in time, in 1996, Kaolin Thomson’s vagina ashtray, which incensed Baleka Mbete and got debated in parliament. And before that, Harold Rubin’s naked black Jesus, which saw the exhibition on which it appeared shut down and the artist charged with – wait for it – blasphemy. And before that even, Moses Kottler’s sandstone nude, which in 1957 was removed from the newly-erected Population Registration Building in Pretoria. We’re a nation prone to elect and be led by dim, humourless leaders. Possibly the grimmest expression of this happened in 1985, when artist, graphic activist and ANC cadre Thami Mnyele was assassinated by apartheid operatives in a cross-border raid on Botswana. Shortly afterwards, security policeman Craig Williamson displayed a Mnyele portfolio seized during the raid on television as evidence of the artist’s “terrorist” activities. I agree with Nolan Oswald Dennis: no forgiveness.

In what ways do you think monumentality can be reconfigured so that the form might lend itself towards democratic tendencies that portray difference, inclusivity and distributed power? 

A cemetery in Pretoria offers a clue. Nearby the horrible black marble tombstone for HF Verwoerd is a small, tatty-looking grave for Eugene Marais, a writer of uncommon insight and political gadfly to the government of Paul Kruger. His grave is topped with a raw, oval-shaped piece of granite placed on a low marble base featuring the words “Poet Writer Naturalist”. I like that. Modesty. It is a difficult thing.

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‘Curious’ by Bonolo Kavula

The current group exhibition at Commune.1 called ‘New Monuments’ explores the notion of ‘the monument’ and new ways to occupy public space. How important is the role of art and artists when it comes contributing and shaping discourse on this issue? 

Artists are courtesans in the palace of power. That said, they are dreamers too. That sounds fluffy, I know. What I mean is that it is easy to ally one’s creativity to power for money. I’ve done it. I’ve seen many talented artists do it. But, there is a seam of practice, shall we say, that doesn’t aim to see everything formulated in bronze, that doesn’t want to sit on a public square and entertain the pigeons. The little thought bubbles in Commune1 are examples of dreaming. I hope none of the artists plan to jump up their pieces to block-occupying scale. That would defeat the purpose of the little experiment the ‘New Monuments’ show proposed.

In terms of aesthetic and theory, what do you think the future form of South African monuments might be like?

I am not a futurologist. Maybe it will look like Mohau Modisakeng’s work at the V&A Waterfront. Or play out ideas explored by Jacques Coetzer in his Open House work along Long Street. Or explore the angular geometry of Maja and Gerhard Marx’s three origami-like pigeons made in steel and on display in downtown Joburg. Personally, I hope the future will involve the zany crystal magic of Daniella Mooney. Ja, I’d be super stoked to see her dreams made into public sculptures. I’m done with bronze men.

‘New Monuments’ is on at Commune.1 until 23 April.

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‘New Monuments’ at Commune.1
'Live and Let Live' by Siwa Mgoboza
‘Live and Let Live’ by Siwa Mgoboza
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‘Ashcastle’ by Martin Wilson
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‘Some Other Ou’ by Rory Emmer
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‘The Exploded View’ by Rodan Kane Hart
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‘Afkop Hoender’ by Isabel Mertz
'Deep Dreamer' by Olivie Keck
‘Deep Dreamer’ by Olivie Keck
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‘Monument for Things that Disappear 2’ by Jacob van Schalkwyk
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‘Study for Wag II’ by Ledelle Moe
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‘Untitled (Two Street Lights Facing Another (Hug)’ by Brett Seiler
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‘New Monuments’ at Commune.1

One Comment

  1. Interesting article and beautifully phrased. Always interesting to view from outside South Africa by someone who does not pay South African taxes that go towards paying for the public art works. I will leave it there.