Destructive Force: Vandals at the gate of culture

29 March 2016 - 02:25 By Sean O'Toole

David Goldblatt, the celebrated documentary photographer, is perturbed by the lack of cultural debate following a spate of vandalism targeting art at the University of Cape Town. "I thought that when these paintings were burnt and photographs vandalised there would be an outcry from the art community," said Goldblatt. "Not a f**k. I think it's highly significant and tragic."Goldblatt, who has been critically analysing South Africa since turning professional in 1963, was referring to two events on UCT's main campus.On February 16, 24 artworks with an insured valued of R682500 were torched by students. They included paintings by Edward Roworth, a past director of the SA National Gallery, and Keresemose Richard Baholo, the first black student to receive a master's degree in fine art from UCT.Then, on March 10, an exhibition at the Centre for African Studies Gallery celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Rhodes Must Fall student movement was vandalised.Objections by The Trans Collective, a group of transgender activists, over the selection of nine images by exhibition curator and RMF activist Wandile Kasibe prompted transgender activists to block the entrance to the gallery and paint slogans on photographs.They included Goldblatt's photo recording the moment riggers hoisted sculptor Marion Walgate's ingratiating 1934 bronze study of Cecil John Rhodes from its plinth at UCT on April 9, as well as works by Kasibe and Michael Hammond.Goldblatt, who was not at the exhibition, said it was the first time his work has ever been vandalised.Although distressed by the lacklustre public response by especially artists, he nonetheless spoke warmly about the making of his photo."As the statue was dethroned, so 2000 pairs of arms went up like some form of mystical ritual," as smartphones and tablets lifted in unison with the statue."It seemed that to most of the people there it was more important to take a photograph than to be there. The witnessing was almost incidental, it was getting the photograph that counted."Among the figures in Goldblatt's crowded photo is UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, seen photographing the event, as well as a student bearing a placard reading: "Dear History/ This Revolution/ Has Women, Gays/ Queers & Trans/ Remember That."A transgender activist isolated this moment in Goldblatt's photo with an arrow. "RMF 4 Trans Lives?" the activist further queried in red paint.While in agreement with the statue's removal, Goldblatt takes issue with the students' campaign methods - from Chumani Maxwele hurling excrement at the Rhodes statue to the recent vandalism."Direct action has become a tool of social intercourse," he said. "In this lies a great danger. If democracy is about talking, and not resorting to guns and fists and brute force to settle differences, then this is the antithesis of democracy."..

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