Commune.1, Cape Town
06.04.2016 – 23.06.2016
Monuments – and the impulse to create them – are really quite painfully ironic. Michael Taussig opaquely sums this irony up in Defacement when he suggests that monuments form an example of a ‘public secret’, which is to say that they are effectively non-existent until an act of defacement transforms them from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility. Besides the Ozymandias-ish hubris of it all, to be turned into a monument seems a bit like a form of Ancient Greek punishment; one where immortality entails having pigeons shit on your likeness for eternity (preferable to an eagle pecking out your liver I suppose).
At any rate, as a consequence of the various Fallist movements active in the country at the moment, it’s safe to say that there is currently an excess of visibility of monuments in South Africa; be they Rhodes statues, busts, artworks or even ingrained institutional colonial/racist attitudes. In response to this political climate, Commune.1’s group exhibition ‘New Monuments’ aims to reassess the idea of the monument and the visual symbols and ideologies encompassed by it.
The exhibition is initially a bit anticlimactic for the viewer in the sense that a phrase like ‘New Monuments’ inevitably conjures images of grand, towering sculptures. To instead encounter a nursery of petit monument maquettes clustered in the center of the gallery’s double-storey space marks the exhibition’s first sly play with the assumptions of monument ideology. Any attempt to produce a blockbuster exhibition would of course be perpetuating the logic which monuments wish to take as given. The included works run the gamut from politically confrontational to whimsical, introspective and even quite funny (see: Davis Ndungu’s endearing ‘quintessentially African’ figure made from flip flops which have washed up along the coast of Kenya).
Formally, the works on ‘New Monuments’ are a bit of a mixed bag; most are successful although some don’t quite hit their mark (Marlene Steyn’s leap from ink/paint to ceramic loses quite a bit of the fundamental charm of her work). Ultimately though, this is an exhibition where the actual works are largely secondary to the underlying ideas which they embody and the perspectives they contribute to the broader discussion.
Lungiswa Gqunta provides the most militant and direct answer to the question of the role of monuments in a decolonialised South Africa with What’s this monument thing?!, an vacant plinth set atop a number of cement-filled glass bottles, rags protruding from their lips referencing petrol bombs. More or less situated as the centrepiece of the exhibition, the plinth serves as a surrogate for the every-monument; declaring the artist’s recommendation of what to do with the impulse for placing things on a pedestal. Besides being a concise iconographic statement, the work also fits in snugly with Gqunta’s broader practice, in which fire has been a recurring motif for rebirth.
Caitlin Mkhasibe’s sound installation UNSOUND offers a flipside to this equation; in which destruction serves as the disease rather than the cure. Her sound recordings capture the horrific noise pollution caused by the recent demolition of an area in Observatory by Rawson Developers, with the intent of building a 10-storey luxury apartment block completely at odds with the heritage housing surrounding it. Departing from the idea of monumental form more drastically than the other works, the recordings here become a sort of monument to white capital’s disregard of the wishes of a community; at least until construction on the towering Barad-dûr is completed.
Throughout the emerging conversations around monuments in South Africa is the problem of substitution rather than replacement; whether monuments can exist without perpetuating hegemony and reinforcing oppressive structures from new sources. “What does it mean when we topple one statue and put the image of a cis heterosexual man up there again?” was one of the key questions posed by UCT Trans Collective member HeJin Kim during their disruption of the Rhodes Must Fall exhibition earlier this year. Siwa Mgoboza’s Live and Let Live: Libertina Leading the Beings emerges as a potential response to this, reimagining Eugène Delacroix’s Lady Liberty as Libertina, an isishweshwe-clad Yinka Shonibare meets Athi-Patra Ruga figure leading a revolutionary call to reimagine ‘people’ as ‘beings’ (defined by the artist as hybrid individuals totally conscious and thriving on contradictions and clashes). By referencing existing imagery, Mgoboza’s work relays the ideological possibility that a more progressive society needn’t be some future thing which has to emerge from scratch; but is latently awaiting the collective decision to embrace empathetic consciousness.
One of the absolute highlights of the exhibition is Olivié Keck’s achingly beautiful ceramic Deep Dreamer; which reads here as a kind of mournful Pietà sans Christ. Admittedly this is quite far removed from Keck’s artist statement, but nevertheless contextualised as monument within the exhibition the work brings to mind the increased spotlight focused on campus rape/sexual harassment incidents at UCT, Rhodes and Wits over the last year. A particularly heinous example of previous excessive invisibility, the public confrontation of these critical issues no doubt coincides with an ever-strengthening support base empowered to transformation.