OPINION | CAPE TOWN 

UCT and art: an exchange between Max Price and Belinda Bozzoli

Debate follows release of list of artworks removed from university

Photo of art being burnt
Protesters burn artworks on UCT in February 2016. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

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GroundUp published a list of artworks that the University of Cape Town (UCT) has removed from public display. Following this, DA Member of Parliament Professor Belinda Bozzoli wrote a letter to Vice-Chancellor Max Price criticising the university. Here is Price’s response and Bozzoli’s letter.  

Response by Max Price to Belinda Bozzoli

Dear Professor Bozzoli,

Your letter dated 28 April refers.

It is most unfortunate that you wrote to the media on the same day as writing to myself without waiting for the university to clarify some incorrect claims.

Be that as it may, UCT reiterates that no artworks have been banned. The 70 or so artworks have only been removed or covered for safekeeping given the protests in February last year in which some 23 artworks and portraits were destroyed. This was necessary in line with the primary custodial responsibilities of the university for works of art in our care.

Some of the portraits, photos and artworks were removed by individual deans, residence wardens or others who are responsible for their spaces and who assessed that there was a threat to those works based on statements and actions of protesters. (Incidentally, it is because of the somewhat ad hoc protective actions of different managers in the university that there are some discrepancies in the list of artworks removed – but the published list is
substantially correct.)

Most of the works that have been removed for safe keeping were identified by the Council’s Works of Art Committee based on their assessment of the risk to these artworks following some months of debates on campus and particularly the calls from activists associated with the #RhodesMustFall to remove works of art that they considered problematic. It is easy to see how removing these works would come across as censorship – but it was always made clear that they were removed temporarily for safe keeping.

Before the burnings and removals, the University Council had already set up a task team to develop a response to the debates about the University’s art collection and to review the University’s policies on acquisitions and curation.

The Works of Art Task Team (WATT) has completed its work. In its final report to Council, it made the following recommendations amongst many others:

First, WATT conducted an audit of all artworks on campus and concluded that the collection is heavily skewed towards white artists and male artists, and that statues and plaques predominantly celebrated white individuals. It recommends that as part of a transformation process, the WOAC should ensure that the collection on display is inclusive and reflective of the variety of cultures on campus. This has implications for the acquisitions policy.

Second, “in our deliberations we found that while there may not be a problem with individual artworks, their cumulative effect, coupled with the lack of a considered curatorial policy, creates a negative feeling amongst some students and staff. We found that currently, UCT does not have a curatorial policy and would need to develop one that is transformation
sensitive.”

Third, the WATT’s report states categorically that “artworks are products of scholarly and intellectual engagement and, as such, they must not be censored but be seen as an educational resource. However, the acquisition and curation must be contextually relevant and sensitive to the broader objectives of the university.”

Fourth, the Task Team established that there is need for continuous and inclusive debate on artworks and symbols to ensure that their value as repositories of cultural, educational, scientific and research information is well appreciated by members of the university community.

Fifth, noting that UCT does not have an art gallery and therefore all works are displayed in public spaces, it was strongly recommended that the university establish a gallery for the secure curation of works of art, particularly those that might be more controversial. A gallery
offers three advantages: unlike art on display in public spaces, people can choose whether or not to view the art; it is easier to contextualise the art works and to provide an ongoing educational experience to gallery visitors; and it is easier to provide security for the works.

Sixth, the WATT advised that the artworks that were removed from the walls be kept in storage pending a broader consultative process. “This consultation may take the form of displays of some of the contested artworks, … debates and discussions around specific artworks and/or themes. Seminars that may involve artists of contested works may also be hosted by the WOAC …” It was recommended that temporary gallery spaces be used in the interim for the display of the works that have been removed.

It should be clear that the university is as concerned about censorship and artistic freedom as our critics and the artists themselves, and that we have given careful thought to finding ways to protect that freedom, to use the art collection to educate and stimulate debate, and to address the challenge of transforming the institutional culture as reflected back to students and staff from the walls of the buildings, while also ensuring that we protect the works from damage or destruction.

Sincerely

Dr Max Price
Vice-Chancellor

Letter to Max Price by Belinda Bozzoli

Dear Dr Price,

Banning and burning of critical artworks at UCT

​I am writing this letter to you today in order to address a deeply concerning issue - the restriction being exercised on freedom of speech, so much a part of what UCT ostensibly stands for, materialised in the banning of approximately 75 artworks, which have been removed from public display or covered up in the past year. Tragically we also saw the burning of some 23 artworks in the unrest of 2015-16.

The recent Groundup publication provided a provisional list of the banned artworks, which if correct, vividly brings to life the sinister actions of the University. Some of South Africa’s most significant artists are included in the list, including Breyten Breytenbach, Christo Coetzee, Steven Cohen, Mia Couvaras, Pieter Hugo, Vusi Khumalo, Lucky Sibiya, Pippa Skotnes, Irma Stern and Sue Williamson.

But we are told that the University has said this list is not accurate. We urge you to make public the precise details involved. The public – and presumably the artists too - needs to know exactly which artworks have been “banned” by the University, and also which ones were burnt in the riots of 2015-16.

It is extremely difficult to comprehend how one of our country’s leading universities, known for its commitment to openness and free speech and obviously dedicated to the support and curation of the creations of many of South Africa’s best artists, could have indulged in this kind of censorship. This current incursion on freedom of speech is akin to the censorship and banning of literature, film, theatre and art by the apartheid government.

I urge you to provide the public with full information on this matter; and to reverse the decisions of the Orwellian “Artworks Task Team” and restore these artworks to their rightful place in the University’s buildings.

Yours sincerely

Prof Belinda Bozzoli (MP)
DA Shadow Minister for Higher Education

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