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