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August 18 2017

OPINION | Censorship of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town

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An ongoing debate around censorship of fine art pieces has erupted once more at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. The following is an abbreviated version of an article by Ivor Powell, first published in the SA Art Times, and then republished by the Daily Maverick on the 4th of August 2017. Falling under the banner of the Artwatch Africa project, Arterial Network has permission to republish this piece in an effort to stimulate debate regarding censorship, artists’ rights and freedom of creative expression, and to encourage the move towards an amicable resolution in a leading African tertiary institution. Following the #rhodesmustfall campaign (where students successfully argued for the removal of a prominent statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the university’s Upper Campus) and the establishment of the Artworks Task Team, UCT is well positioned to establish precedents regarding art in public spaces in the post-colonial/ post-apartheid era in South Africa. A link to Jay Pather's (Director of the Institute of Creative Arts) response to Powell's article has been included below, as well as a link to Powell’s unabbreviated article.


During the past two years, fine art has been under attack at the University of Cape Town (UCT), with artworks defaced, intentionally destroyed by fire and blacklisted during various student protests. In response, some 74 works of art from the University’s collection – by some of the country’s most acclaimed artists – have been taken down or covered up “on the grounds of their vulnerability to potential damage” or because “some members of the campus community have identified certain works of art as offensive to them – for cultural, religious or political reasons”.

More than a year since UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price assured the public that the removal of these 74 artworks was merely ‘provisional’, he once again addressed the issue as part of an opinion piece highlighting what he described as institutional racism at UCT and feelings of marginalisation on the part of black students. But, writes Ivor Powell, the longer that the artworks are kept out of the public eye, the greater the risk to the integrity of UCT and the more compromised the humanist values at its institutional heart.

As far as artist Willie Bester is concerned, his sculpture of the so-called Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman – which is part of UCT’s art collection and currently covered up by black cloth in the university library – provides a kind of locus for issues of identity: firstly for the suffering and racism that occurred in the colonial and post-colonial context, and secondly, “so that [we] can confront who we are”. “[We] fought for everyone to be acceptable with whatever deficiency they have, or what is seen as a deficiency.”

For, Max Price, however, Bester’s concerns around inclusivity are of no great import, at least according to a recent column that he wrote for City Press. Conjecturing the way in which Bester’s artwork might be encountered by a black student born after 1994, Price writes of the “familiar naked sculpture of the Khoikhoi woman, Sarah Baartman, with her exaggerated buttocks that made her a freak show in Victorian England”.

To be fair, Price does, in passing, allow that the student’s reading of the work might alter if they knew that Bester was black and that he utilised the figure to project his personal pain. But then again it might not. “Or”, he continues, “this may be irrelevant, and your anger at the sexual objectification of this woman – this black woman – may continue to burn. It is not difficult to see why black students would say: ‘This is not simply art that provokes. This art makes me deeply uncomfortable ... the University surely doesn’t care about my feelings.’”

Well, as Price is at pains to demonstrate, the University does apparently care.  Responding to questions from the SA Art Times, UCT media manager Elijah Moholola said that the removal of the works was “part of the short-term recommendations made by the Artworks Task Team (ATT) earlier this year” and that the artworks that were removed from the walls are to remain in storage, pending, among other things, a broader consultative process. This consultation will take the form of displays of some of the contested artworks, debates and discussions around specific artworks and themes.

According to Moholola, these recommendations are to be implemented within a year, “so the process is still ongoing and on-track.” In the meantime, Bester – a sculptor of some pre-eminence in the democratic South Africa and the son of a Xhosa father and a mother of mixed race – has been silenced in a debate about race and identity in the new South Africa.

What right, one might ask, does the university have to devalue Bester’s cultural and artistic expression? And according to what measures of student perception is Bester’s work considered too hot to handle? Whatever the details, Price’s message is unambiguous: just in case artworks might be misunderstood by students, it behoves the administration to remove the works from view or to cover them up.  To a neutral observer, this might seem a bit like saying medical students should be protected from autopsies in case they are offended by the sight of blood.

Price is the head of an important institution of higher learning, one that is founded on humanist principles and which has an extensive humanities department. As such, the humanities account for a very significant portion of all the study undertaken within the institution.

In the humanist model, it is by considering the claims of that with which you disagree – or that which offends you, or that which you wish to supersede in some way – that you contribute to the sum of human knowledge and engage in the business of academic learning. As such, it is useful to think of an artwork as serving a similar function in the humanities to the hypothesis in empirical science. In the normal context, a society and its institutions simultaneously celebrate and critique themselves through the art and the images collected and displayed. Of course, what is collected and displayed changes over time, and it is not even unthinkable that it could, in some instances, be meaningfully argued that the destruction of works might be advisable.

But such actions need to be broached within the frameworks of humanist engagement and transacted in public – not just by kowtowing to the demands of those who would hold art to ransom and make non-consultative decisions behind closed doors.

The point here is that this is not really about art nor about learning. The narrative engaged by UCT’s student militants is bluntly, brutally and convulsively political. This is about a struggle for the control and ownership of resources, a winner-takes-all model in which the old is obliterated and a tabula rasa is created on which to inscribe the new. 

Thus, in the Shackville protests, five paintings by Richard Baholo, the first black student at UCT to be awarded an MA in Fine Art, were set alight. The paintings in question addressed precisely the issue that the students were protesting: racist inequities in South African education.  Speaking in his personal capacity, Ramabina Mahapa, former UCT SRC president and Rhodes Must Fall leader, provides chilling insight into the militants’ motivations in a student publication in March 2016:   

“The aim is to get the university to reach a stage where they will be unable to concede to any more significant demands and therefore resort to use the state policing apparatus and private security to repress student protests. The expectation is that this will detach the black masses from the hegemonic bloc of the ruling party and thereby awaken the ‘sleeping’ masses that will then redirect their frustrations and rage towards not only the universities but the state.”

This is populism in the raw. The idea is to drive the administration to violence and then – cynically and strategically – to cry foul. It has nothing to do with art, except insofar as destroying artworks raises the political temperature.

And yet, it is precisely the presence of paintings by the university’s first black Fine Art Masters graduate, as well as the institutional involvement of such struggle luminaries as Njabulo Ndebele and to Mamphela Ramphele, that marks out a moment of transformation at UCT that should by rights should be built upon. Such images and such progressions are precisely what need to be seen and to be discussed. And, in the case of the destroyed Baholos, they now need to be shown in reproduction, with clear indications of why the originals are not available for hanging.

As long as such issues are not addressed, argued, and thrashed out in a context where opposing views are considered and debated, they will not be dealt with in any convincing way. Until that process takes place, UCT will almost certainly remain a battlefield in a war of attrition – or, at the very least, an academic basket case in the making.


To read the unabbreviated article, please click here.

Right of Reply: UCT is not a closed and controlled gallery
Published by the Daily Maverick (in English), 11 August 2020

"This year alone, UCT’s Institute for Creative Arts Live Art Festival hosted and supported the controversial works of Steven Cohen (recently arrested in Paris); Jelili Atiku (recently arrested in Nigeria) Zanele Muholi (whose exhibition was shunned by a previous Arts and Culture Minister) Dean Hutton (whose work was publicly vandalised at the IZIKO National Gallery) together with cutting-edge works by artists from Switzerland, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia. Importantly, all 33 events were free of charge, for everybody and anybody to attend save for age restrictions on a few. The works were performed and viewed in public as well as private gallery and theatre spaces and curated according to levels of sensitivity and relevance.

Works such as Mamela Nyamza’s attack on patriarchy and religion, or the controversial works of Nora Chipaumire, Gavin Krastin, Samson Kambalu, Gabrielle Goliath and Donna Kukama were given full support and exposure to students, staff and the general public. Panel discussions that followed the performances questioned everything including the university itself. At the risk of sounding rhetorical, does this sound like an institution bent on censoring art?"

Click here to read the full article.

1 - David Goldblatt, UCT, 9 April 2021
2 - David Goldblatt, UCT, 14 May 2020
3 - Cape Argus, UCT, 16 February 2021

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