Published in City Press (21 February 2016)
On the eve of the most prestigious art festival on Cape Town’s calendar, the framed faces of mainly white people went up in flames nearby. Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) protesters disturbed the temporary peace at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to challenge the structures of racial inequality as the Cape Town Art Fair presented a press conference which, on the surface, looked like the very thing the students were up in arms about: lack of transformation.
Those seated at the head of the art fair’s press conference panel manifested the sore state of racial inclusion in Cape Town. Parched of melanin, they included newly appointed fair director Matthew Partridge, curator and academic Ruth Simbao and even ex-rugby captain Francois Pienaar.
As six competent and highly skilled (white) individuals addressed the media, it was abundantly clear how Cape Town Art Fair had missed the opportunity to bring to the fore the diversity that South Africans within and outside the art world continue to fight for.
As students continue to be catalysts for igniting necessary conversations, Tuesday night’s protest was a potent elixir of fury and the collective-conscious energy of a frustrated student body.
Unfortunately, this was at the price of works of art, including that of painter Keresemose Richard Baholo. But as RMF members and students protested against what they say is the exclusion of black students at UCT, the art blazed on in the face of racial exclusion in other sectors of our society.
“From the earliest days of settler presence in the Cape Colony, art was indelibly identified with European culture and heritage,” writes Mario Pissarra in Cast in Colour: Towards an Inclusive South African Art. And like the effigy of Cecil John Rhodes that was brought down last year, maybe the antiquated works of art that featured in the hallways of UCT residences also represented these colonial ties.
But how do we ensure that today’s artistic landscape becomes representative of the demographics of this African state? In an art world that attempts to be progressive (Mandla Sibeko was named the Joburg Art Fair codirector; the Cape Town Art Fair has a robust programme of black practitioners talking on its line-up; and the country continues to produce a variety of black artists, arts journalists, curators and academics), we should ask how far we have actually come in producing truly immersive, inclusive art spaces. One where press panels and organising committees of major African art fairs do not appear as white as they did on Wednesday evening.
The images broadcast of the pile of art in flames divided the country. Some believe it a nonsensical act to destroy what is deemed as history; others view it as violence begotten from the structural violence projected on black bodies. For me, neither is incorrect. But as I continue to hear the opinions expressed by those in the art world against the protesters at UCT, I do hope to hear an art society that equally goes to war on social media and in public to chastise the continued marginalisation of black people where it matters.
Jason is an art critic and practitioner