If we have learnt anything in the past year of student protest action, it is that public symbols and images have the power to catalyze mass mobilization and action. In this moment, therefore, we would be foolish if we did not pay close attention to the new symbols that are entering public discourse, and, with them, the new fables.
In 2011, Dali Tambo put forth a proposal for a National Heritage Monument Project outside Fountains Valley in Tshwane. This project, which is already well underway, will allegedly include four-to-five hundred bronze statues of individuals who fought for ‘the end’ of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. Their arrangement collectively will create an artwork entitled ‘The Long March To Freedom’. To add to this insidious reference, the monument project will be accompanied by nothing other than Africa’s largest water park, which, although adding spice to the mix, will not be the central focus of this article.
My focus in this article, will be on understanding why the aesthetic of the sculpture park has been designed in the way it has. The project, using state-donated land as well as government, foreign, and private funding is ideologically strategic, with the endeavor pushing an unashamedly capitalist agenda. Speaking on the project in 2013, Tambo declares:
“Heritage tourism is a massively growing aspect of international tourism, with the educated middle classes seeking otherness… Heritage is the show business of history…”
If we take Tambo’s sentiments as a starting point into realizing its goals, it becomes relatively easy to make the necessary connections between the aesthetic decisions of the sculpture park, and the parallel aesthetics of the exclusionary capitalist ideology that forms its foundation.
Visual Aesthetics and Power Structures
An interesting way to address this foundational meaning is to examine the ideology that is communicated through the medium of bronze, and specifically through the ‘classical’ bronze-casting style of European imperialists that is to be used in the making of the sculptures. With an understanding of the way colonial bronze statues have historically occupied, and still continue to occupy our public spaces, we should wonder how and why this aesthetic is now being re-sold to us, only with the use of new figureheads. Public memory is politicized because it is constructed and informed by dominant ideology, so what then can we read about the politics of this country through the state’s continuation of an art discipline made by, and for, colonialists?
Cecil John Rhodes’ symbol was used as a springboard in spurring recent formalisations of radical black conscious student politics globally, and this lead us to an understanding of protest as a layered conversation, often spurred by images that seep undercurrents of violence into our society. These violent symbols are very closely protected by bureaucratic systems that understand the oppressive ways in which they act- they perform a key role in the reproduction of unequal societies because they re-enforce dominant ideology that favours some and disadvantages the rest.
So symbols are useful, but they are complex- who or what is being represented is just as important as the medium and method used for representation. We should therefore be critical of any public symbol that is depicted in the manner in which we are used to seeing Cecil John Rhodes depicted, for instance, even the body depicted is not exactly his.
Bronze and its relationship with oppression in colonies
Bronze is expensive, and relatively immovable. It stays put for centuries and is difficult to destroy; it is certain of itself. Bronze symbolizes a regime, a triumph over land. Bronze, of recent, has had a mobilizing effect, it spurs action within people who look up at bronze figures and do not see themselves reflected back. Bronze can collect masses, can put institutions at a standstill, bronze can insult a Black South Africa which is in a process of trying to re-imagine itself. Bronze has acted as the anti-imagination of a decolonized South Africa, and its continued use in the colonial style cannot ever be read as a project that attempts to create a space for ‘all South Africans’ to memorialise anything whatsoever.
Imperialist bronze-casting methods are an unwelcome import, with their reference points and chosen sites of exhibition being stolen land and resources. However bronze (the metal itself) has been used in multiple ways in all corners of the world including Southern Africa, so how then do we understand Black people cast in bronze in this ‘classical’ style, devoid of any irony whatsoever? And how do we read what these Black people are trying to portray through this particular depiction of their own ancestors? The fact of the government backing a project like this is essentially an official legitimization of colonialist depictions of heroism, an image of democracy that attempts to build on colonialist visual language, and therefore ideology.
But why and how is it that this discipline of bronze casting is good enough for us now? Why are we adding to a violent historical trajectory, instead of dispelling it, and creating our very own stories? In a project of decolonization, our imagination of public symbolism surely needs to originate here, using our own image-makers and artists’ skill sets and disciplines, in a process that takes as departure point a democratic conceptualization of who and what needs to be memorialized, and how we would like to see that done.
Contrary to this approach, which would seek to centre South Africans as the creators of their own memorials, twenty Black South African artists are being trained in the “classical technique of bronze casting” (Tambo, quoted 2014) for this undertaking. The power dynamic here is one we are used to, replicating the B.E.E project: Black artists have not been acknowledged as creative humans but are instead placed in a specific context to carry out a task of colonial formulation, for which they need training from white people. Black artists are being trained to depict mostly Black people using a foreign method, and yet we are being told that this memorial is inclusive of, and even for Black people (too). The contradictions here are obvious, and this directs us to the question of who the park is actually being built for.
The park is essentially a tourist attraction “featur(ing)… a formal African craft market and Africa’s biggest water park” . It is a commodification of a very particular ‘heritage’ designed by the political ideology of the ANC. Not shy of this reality, Tambo is caught in another article proudly claiming, “I’m a businessman like anybody else and I’ve positioned myself to turn history into show business… and my company is very good at it.”
In short- ‘the struggle’ is over, so let’s polish it up and sell it. This is a heartbreaking project of a South African Black elite who is ready to objectify its ancestors using colonial stylistic means, in order to protect a state that is governed by, as bell hooks would have it, ‘white–supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’. And that is what tourists love about South Africa.
Mimicry versus Imagination
Without re-imagining our public spaces, we are inevitably trapped by a linear history with a rotten origin, and bronze is just a symptom of that. Used for its durability, bronze solidifies memory. It stands unmoved for centuries, and in this sense, it is does not attempt to look forward to more change, and does not acknowledge that consciousness is fluid, and therefore a conscious nation’s memory should never be imagined as permanent. What would a space of memorialisation look like if it was a space that allowed the public to create and recreate its own formulations of memory? Indeed, what would an actual public space look like in South Africa?
How do we re-imagine public spaces in South Africa, when walking through the so-called Company’s Gardens (the Dutch East India Company’s that is), and are stared down at by the likes of Jan Christian Smuts, and Cecil John Rhodes? How are poor Black South Africans who are removed from public spaces by outsourced security companies supposed to imagine what their public space should look like?
Inasmuch as creating large water parks and gardens full of bronze statues seems appealing in some ways, I believe that the most imaginative starting point would be a South Africa devoid of symbolism that characterises oppressed people as less than human. We cannot move forward co-existing with these images, attempting to claim them as our own reference points.
It is a sad time when Dali Tambo declares that he “…regretted never seeing a black man in bronze” because this regret- primarily, incredibly patriarchal and sexist- indicates an idea that there is something to be salvaged from the unequal structure of South Africa, that there exists here a colonial legacy that might possibly be transformed to suit a Black agenda.
The mimicry of colonialist symbolism to depict the colonized is not an act of liberation but one of assimilation, and when women and non-gender binary people are not included in the rhetoric around such conceptualizations, the imagination of these projects is inherently exclusionary.
We are not yet in a position to know exactly where it is that we are headed, but surely the memorials we make in this future Azania- the symbols- will not possibly look anything like the old boring bronze of Cecil and his imperialist cronies. But maybe there will be a water park.