A chronological tale of how Live Art became Protest Art (2016-2022)

Flight Series

THE BEGINNING: CONCEPTUAL REASONING

This sculpture named ‘Flight’ was put on the Rooiplein in front of the Jan Marais statue on Monday the 17th of October 2016 around 08:30. As an artistic intervention with the past, this sculpture visually the ways in which we still commemorate past figures like Jan Marais. In this way, it addresses the problematics around safeguarding monuments in public spaces which violate and threaten the identities of so many people. More specifically, it aims to comment of the ever-present hierarchical structure within the University of Stellenbosch and society insofar as it contributes to this violation by denying access and opportunities to those who are historically deprived. Flight therefore interrogates Jan Marais and that which his presence resembles by asking truthfully: “isn’t it time to get down?”. It was removed by University security 90mins after installation.

THE STORY...

I got the idea for this project in a sculpting workshop with Ledelle Moe in my second year of study. The model for this structure was realised in plaster and bronze- a fragile staircase next to an empty bronze plinth. I was working at GUS at the time and curator, Greer Valley, probed me to submit a proposal for the Open Forum residency she was facilitating to create the large scale structure and public performative intervention. In a loooong back and forth with the university, they first said the art piece would be allowed. Then, tensions around the #FeesMustFall protest led them to withdraw their approval. This was the weekend before the intervention was to take place and I had not only bought all the materials but also finished the construction of the more or less 3 x 2,8 x 1m wooden sculpture. This is how an art piece that was meant to be a massive visual question mark, intended to stir conversations, became a protest art piece.

With the help of fellow students and university staff, we carried the heavy staircase from the Visual Arts building to the Jan Marais monument on Monday the 17th of October 2016. A quiet moment transcended over the excited crowd of students, bystanders, a church group informally meeting close by, and lectures as we all took in the new possibility to climb up and access the previously inaccessible. 

I climbed the staircase, reached up to show how I still could only reach Marais middle, turned around, and looked over the Stellenbosch campus from his immortal vantage point. From the plinth, next to Jan, I invited the onlookers to engage with the art piece in any way they felt and climbed down. Other Open Forum artists hung printed flags around the structure and monument, one student climbed up and zapped Jan, and most just climbed up and looked up at the enormous monument, creating sticking images of the scale of his colonial “big-dick” energy. 

90mins into this rather anti-climatic (if I must admit) protest art piece, 12 'Men in Black' (the #FeesMustFall private riot police hired by the university) marched up in a line and formed a barricade between us and my artwork. A white man with a walkie-talkie started screaming at us that no one was to access the monument through the stair sculpture as it was the property of the university and not approved by management. There was no arguing with this man. He simply thundered instruction to the mostly black Men in Black to not move until the vehicle arrived to transport the art piece away from the monument and disappeared off the scene. Artists and fellow interveners started asking the Men in Black how they felt about the situation while we all waited in anticipation for the ever-mysterious “Management” to show up. Answers ranged from silence, to “I don’t care about this man, but I have to do my job”, to “I think you kids are doing great work! Keep going, and don’t mind what management says!”.

A bakkie arrived with the head of the Landscaping department behind the steering wheel. My lecturer and I tried to understand from her why the art piece was being removed and she said that the faceless “management” sent her to move the structure because she had access to a big vehicle and that was all part she had to play. They lifted the structure off the ground, onto the bakkie, and carefully unloaded it by the side entrance of the Visual Arts building, 50 meters and in view of Jannie Marais. 

I heard nothing from the university. I got into no trouble. Some of my colleagues and #FeesMustFallparticipants weren’t so lucky. The only mention of the whole thing from “management’s” side was in the newsletter to all parents the following week stating that, “an art piece had been removed from the Rooiplein because it was a fire hazard”. Of course, they didn’t mention that it was moved right next to one of the most explosive departments on campus. 

I was very upset about this whole situation at first and then realised that the reaction of the university was precisely what I was trying to comment on and that the image of the riot police next to my artwork is one of the most powerful images I have produced (in collaboration with management itself). The fragility of whiteness and the violence with which institutions like Stellenbosch will protect it is shocking. This (OF COURSE) led to so much more work on the topic of public commemoration.

Photographs by Lincoln Jacobs

Courtesy Open Forum Residency

Take Flight (2019)

Courtesy Institute for Creative Arts

 

Photographs by Rosca Warries

In 2019, I proposed the same concept of plywood staircase and public performative intervention with monuments to the ICA for Infecting the City, Live Arts festival. I proposed creating two sculptures this time, placing one in front of Cecil John Rhodes and the other in front of Jan Hofmeyer- creating a conversation between these two statues and linking the public space between them. This time, I wanted to actively mobilize what I had learnt from the collaborative activations from the 2016 iteration. So, I proposed having more planned interventions with the monuments while the staircases were in front of them. After my proposal got accepted I invited Duduzile Mathebula among other artists (I will share each artist's marvellous engagement separately) to join the intervention that was to take place in and between Church Square and the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Dudu and I did the first performative intervention of the day. 

CONCEPTUAL REASONING

Considering the ongoing debate about which political, religious or social figures should be monumentalized in the South African public space, and which ideals should be kept overlooking the public- I think there is an urgency for visual professionals to reconsider the traditional monument. A necessity has arisen to critically deconstruct the symbolism of this form of commemoration by honestly asking whether there is still space for these kinds of figures to stand, uninterrupted, in a Post-Apartheid South Africa, whatsoever. 

Take Flight acts as an alternative monument by drawing on the image of a boxed-up Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus, before being removed in 2015. The impermanent plywood structure built around this symbol of institutionalised racism, became a testament to voices heard. Take Flight consists of two freestanding plywood sculptures of staircases placed in conversation with the monuments of Jannie Hofmeyer on Church Square and Cecil John Rhodes in the Company Gardens, in Cape Town.  A series of curated interventions and Live Art performances by artists Nicolene Burger, Duduzile Mathebula, Spirit Mba, King Debs and Kirsten Warries took place after the stairs were installed.  

The sculptures (250 x 250 x 90 cm) also reference an intervention Burger did as a third-year Fine Art student at the University of Stellenbosch. She created one plywood staircase titled, Flight (2016), as part of the resistance art residency, Open Forum, curated by Greer Valley. The image of a staircase against a monument of white power, addresses the issues around safeguarding monuments in public spaces which violate and threaten the identities of so many people. Take Flight revisited this idea by inviting Capetonians to reconsider the public monument, not as something that permanently fixes an individual, and the ideas he/she stood for, in the public space, but as points where ideas meet in discussion, art, performance and protest. The big, bulky staircases highlight the renegotiations of identity, policy, relationships and power that underpin the current South African reality.

 

Take Flight symbolizes the continued destabilization of race prejudice and wealth power-structures necessary in South Africa after 1994. But, it also points to the sad truth of the Rainbow Nation: more than 20 years after the abolition of Apartheid, we are still not an equal nation. Arguing that what South Africa needs in terms of monuments is interruption, questioning, destabilisation and visual change, Take Flight offers a literal platform for this to take place. 

Nicolene Burger and Duduzile Mathebula met at a Live Art workshop organised by the ICA in 2019. The two artists connected over a similar enquiry in their practical outputs: “How can art play a role in catalysing and facilitating healing in public spaces?”. Mathebula and Burger have since created work together that engages and expands this question to themes such as womanhood, public memory, rituals, identity and culture, called Take Flight. Take Flight is a series of Live Art interventions (of which the first took place on 19 November 2019 in Cape Town) and written reflections which brings together the two female artists from different worlds. Together through this work Mathebula and Burger contemplate what action might be taken or what might be communicated through their bodies (in the name of art) that will stir conversation and accelerate the cleansing and healing of South African spaces that carry colonial remembrance. 

A prominent motivation behind this collaboration is to use their intuitive and emotional process of art-making to question: “Why are you still here?” and insert their bodies through performative action into public spaces where violent histories need to be confronted in the present. They chose Live Art to practice their artistic considerations, because the two artists argue that the body is where the cross between what is private and what is public exists. Our individualistic nature is formed, with a private, separate identity in the body/mind, but as soon as we move into the public space, what is collective is reflected onto and from our bodies. Through Live Art the audience is caught off-guard to relate to “the other” in a new way that commonly involves all the senses. Mathebula and Burger argue that a deeper understanding is instilled from one body to another. Their performances therefore always allow for interaction with the audience through either making the audience perform an action, engage in the making of the work or use more than one scene in viewing the work.

Most monuments are patriarchal let alone colonial in nature. Through the first public expression of Take Flight, Mathebula and Burger expressed their fascination in the idea that “women from different worlds still inherit ‘his-story’?” and wondered together “where is ‘her-story’?”. The silent performance showed (as future performances will) that women have long been here, but that the stories about their pain, labour and lives have not been archived enough in the South African public space. Burger and Mathebula’s interventions highlight the ongoing impact these violent spaces have on the emotional lives of many. The artists make themselves hyper-visible by laboriously creating striking garments in which considered performative action is taken that references different ways women have played a role in healing and connecting people. They stand tall with the colonial relics, boldly obstructing the monument’s view and the of the monument, and ask their audiences to look at them and consider a new vantage point. 

INTERVENTION 1: THE STORY

In 2019, I proposed the same concept of plywood staircase and public performative intervention with monuments to the ICA for Infecting the City, Live Arts festival. I proposed creating two sculptures this time, placing one in front of Cecil John Rhodes and the other in front of Jan Hofmeyer- creating a conversation between these two statues and linking the public space between them. This time, I wanted to actively mobilise what I had learnt from the collaborative activations from the 2016 iteration. So, I proposed having more planned interventions with the monuments while the staircases were in front of them. After my proposal got accepted I invited Duduzile Mathebula among other artists (I will share each artist's marvellous engagement separately) to join the intervention that was to take place in and between Church Square and the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Dudu and I did the first performative intervention of the day. 

My dad came to help me build the wooden staircases in Obs in the driveway of my house at the time. We loaded them onto trucks and transported them to the city center. Installing the one on Church Square was relatively easy. But in the Company Gardens, to get to old Cecil, we had to lift the heavy sculpture over a fence and carry it a few meters. This was done the afternoon before the performance.

When I arrived on the morning of 19 November 2019, just before our performance, the wooden staircase in front of Cecil was gone. And I mean GONE! The only traces left of the massive plywood structure was a few splinters on the ground. I was speechless. Less panicked (because people removing a moerse sculpture in the middle of an activation had “mos" happened to me before) I got hold of the organising team of Infecting the City and together we went to the offices of the Company Gardens manager. 

The curator took out a permit signed by the management offices- proof that permission was granted for the structure and performances to occupy the space a whole day. The lady behind the desk was shocked and said she saw the stairs when she got in in the morning. The papers must have been signed by her co-manager; she knew nothing about it, she apologised. She explained that she thought someone was preparing to climb up and vandalise the monument. They had had many incidents in the past and she wanted to nip this unwanted public commentary in the butt before they had to spend hours scrubbing Cecil of red paint again. The curators asked her to organise the same team she ordered to destroy the structure, to reconstruct it. But by that time our performance had to start, and of course, the show had to go on.

The nerves of performing, drama with another imperial monument winning over public art and the panicked chaos to reconstruct the one staircase, amounted in a kind of calm rage in me. The kind I had often felt as a little girl when old men spoke over me with a, “what do you have to add”, attitude. Dudu and I had planned our performance to be about opening and cleansing the space between and around the monuments and sculptures. We had brought a washing basin of water from the Atlantic ocean with us. This was symbolic of the well-known history of colonial trouble arriving on boats in the Cape, being cleansed or baptised, and inviting nature into the space- referencing feminine power.

Through the first public expression of 'Take Flight', we enacted our displeasure of the fact that all women from different worlds still inherit ‘his-story’, and wondered together, "where is ‘her-story’?”. The silent, slow, meditative, performance consisted of a lemniscate route curving around the two monuments and crossing under the 'Arch for Arch’ structure. We carried the heavy basin between us, scooped out water and splashed it on the ground and monuments as we passed. We made ourselves hyper-visible by laboriously creating and then wearing striking garments. Our bodies and considered performative action stated that women have long been here, but that the stories about our pain, labour and lives have not been archived enough in the South African public space. We were claiming the space for ourselves and all women-identifying bodies. Between the repeated rounds we paused in front of the staircases, looking up at the bronze men. Standing tall with these colonial relics, boldly obstructing the view of the monuments, we asked our audience to look at us and consider a new vantage point. 

There were other amazing moments in this performance that happened in the improvised spirit of Live Art. Like the first moment we stood in front of Cecil and the semi-assembled staircase: Dudu and I sat the bucket down as tears rolled down my face. We both climbed the basin of ocean water and stood there facing the crowd until our feet were shrivelled and soft. Later, our feet were scorched by the hot tar, our souls raw from the bombarding questions directed at us by a group of Dutch tourists that stumbled upon our performance and deeply fatigued by the ongoing conviction to bodily insert ourselves into spaces that carry colonial remembrance so that cleansing and healing might be accelerated.

With every round we walked we became more determined, jaws set. The sadness of the morning's failings leaving us with every step. With a new sense of power growing and enforced by each bystander stopping their day to follow us, we walked in front of silent crowd of more than 50 people at one point. When the performance drew to a close we stopped under The Arch for Arch again to wave the past goodbye. The most magical part of the day greeted us there: without us knowing our performance aligned with a protest against gender-based violence and a youth choir was singing a powerful song of female struggle as we emptied out steel basin of the last ocean water.

INTERVENTION 2: SPIRIT MBA

Spirit Mba did a performance intervention after Dudu and I opened the space. She was the first one to climb the wooden staircases, raise her megaphone and scream poetry at the monumentalized figures in bronze. I will never forget her panic and disappointment when she arrived in The Company Gardens to a semi-reconstructed staircase. ”But I was supposed to climb up… the power was in climbing up…”, she almost pleaded to those involved and standing around. Her fatigue, shock, and sadness visualized in her kneeling body inside the destroyed structure brought the crippling effect of institutionalized racism and colonialism unavoidably into the space. I asked her to reflect in a few words on her contribution to 'Take Flight'. 

"Landmark was a performance piece about land redistribution. I wanted to start a conversation on that.

I grew up in a clustered environment, and even though I got explanations from different people whilst growing up, I never understood why things were set up that way. Until I learned about the Apartheid laws, especially, the Group Areas Act. Creating laws that enforced the separation of people based on their race was inhumane!

By collaborating with Nicolene, the work became more elevated. It helped to visually point out WHO I was protesting in the poetry. It gave a strong point of reference that some of the characters who were involved in these inhumanities are giant statue figures still towering over our society.

And my question is why are they still there?"