This is a response, or rather a continuation, of a previous post of mine, in which I also discussed the Art on the Rooiplein.
The 20Stellenbosch – Two Decades of South African Sculpture – outdoor art exhibition was launched in the historic town of Stellenbosch during October 2011. The idea behind it was to celebrate some of South Africa’s most influential and recognised artists by erecting twenty of their sculptures all across town and in the process provide the public with the opportunity to view them all in one go. One of these sculptures was also placed right in the centre of the Stellenbosch University campus and as it turned out, currently is the one which receives the most media attention. This is because since day one it received strong criticism from members of the public which eventually lead to a petition being drawn up to ask for its removal and to be placed in an indoor art gallery instead. These dissatisfied members of public then became the objects of criticism of many others who thought this sculpture ought to be welcomed in town and on campus.
So, what does this sculpture look like? What is its story, what does it represent, what is it communicating? Why are the people fine with the other sculptures but not with this one? Should art pieces not be allowed on a university campus? Is it tainting the image and culture of the university or town?
These are the typical questions I guess you would be asking me right now (and I will answer these shortly). You would want to form an opinion on the matter but can only do so once you have more information available? You would want to critically assess the sculpture and the environment in which it was placed, together with the objections against it and approvals of it? It seems, unfortunately though, that very few of those commenting on the controversy properly engaged these questions. Some saw the sculpture and found it aesthetically displeasing and offensive which lead them to take up the matter with the authorities involved. Although it is fair to voice one’s opinion and lodge complaints, it is in itself not reason enough to remove a sculpture. Others again said they loved the sculpture and that they found it beautiful and very professionally done. A third group – the most vocal one, judging from activity on online publication and social network sites – were not specifically for or against the sculpture but really struggled to make peace with the fact that there are people who found the work offensive and wanted it moved to an indoor location. Personally, I believe art ought not so much to be judged on what it looks like but rather on what it communicates when considering whether it is appropriate in any given setting – and no, I can see no reason why art should be allowed to communicate what ever where ever simply because it is categorised as ‘art’.
Let us now consider the sculpture itself. It is a depiction of a naked, half-man half-wildebeest figure in a somewhat uncomfortable pose (see my previous post for a picture). I doubt there are many cultures in all the world who would consider such a creature as one that is ‘good’ or ‘pure’ but as I said, we should not look at the creature itself but rather at what it repesents, or communicates. When we consider the full series of sculptures of which this one forms part of, we find the description below as it appears on the Christie’s website through which the work of Dylan Lewis (the artist involved) is promoted. I also read it myself when I visited the gallery in Stellenbosch in which the series of works were displayed during 2011:
Dylan Lewis turned his attention to the human figure in 2006, after over a decade of focusing on animal forms. The change in subject matter is not the radical shift it may appear to be, as Lewis’s primary inspiration and motivation remains the same. However, the wilderness landscapes inhabited by the wild animal have been expanded now to incorporate the growing fascination of the artist with the notion of internal and external wilderness areas that he sees as vital to our humanity, and he has launched himself into a passionate exploration of movement in both male and female figures: a dynamic integration of human, animal and earth, held together by ancient animistic belief, myth and ritual.
Lewis’s human forms conjure the shaman, the conveyor of disembodied truths, yet are firmly grounded in powerful physicality. They are in direct association with the animal spirit and life force embodied in the animal skull masks they wear, the enormous wings they carry, or the claws that replace human hands. A large number of the new figures wear masks adorned with animal horns, and are thus reminiscent of the archetypal horned god found in several ancient mythologies including Celtic and Hindu, the most well-known of which must be the Greek, where he is Pan. But that is not to say that Lewis is here faithfully recreating only mythical characters. Instead, he invests a mortal humankind with those qualities evoked by the horned god archetype: closely associated to wild animals, sexuality and virility.
Lewis’s humans lose restrictive human identities in ritualised and exuberant bodily movements that demonstrate their subservience to the personage of their animal aspects, and in so doing, they temporarily become more than “human”. In becoming one with their animal masks and features, Lewis’s new figures fleetingly reconnect with that which humankind lost in expelling our wild nature from our essential selves in order to define ourselves as “human”. The transformation is a connection with and celebration of the vital energy, life force and spirit of all that is truly “wild”. There is, Lewis’s work suggests, a great nobility and even joy to be found in striving to connect with our wild past and origins both internally and externally: to attempt to reconnect with the abandoned Pan within, even if that end remains forever elusive.
Lewis’s human figures represent an interface between animal and human rather than simple humankind, and continue to speak of wilderness. They are an attempt to explore visually the integration of all that is wild and free and to reconcile the ideas of inner and outer wilderness, as well as being vehicles through which to probe the fundamental importance of wilderness to the human psyche. These are ideas that Lewis intends to continue exploring in the foreseeable future.
So, in short, the sculpture depicts a Pan-like character through which Lewis encourages us to embrace again our ‘wild’ nature at the cost of the ‘human’ (civilised, tamed) one we are currently defined by. Given that Lewis grew up in a culture molded by the Judeo-Christian worldview, I understand him to refer to the beings morally accountable to a sovereign God, which this culture consider themselves as, when he refers to the term “human”. He suggests we reconnect with our wild nature, the abandoned Pan within, that part which lives for pleasure and fulfillment of personal desires, the hedonist if you will. Or once again, as seen from within his own culture: we ought to reconnect with our sinful nature, that which we laid down for the sake of walking according to the moral law. And who was Pan anyway? He was a Greek god (counterpart to Roman god Faunus) who dwelled the mountainside and woods as a playful, energetic wildman who danced and played the syrinx (Panpipe). Other than that he would spend his time chasing nymphs and virgins to satisfy his sexual desires, especially by means of rape. The very queer thing was that when the university first received complaints surrounding the statue they released an official statement through which Lewis himself assured those concerned that the sculpture was not meant as religious commentary. It was a sure cop out from Lewis’ side which reminded me of the saying my dad often used when myself or my sister came to him with a story that seemed a bit far-fetched: Moenie aan my perdedrolle probeer verkoop as vye nie (Don’t try and sell me horse droppings as figs). Many claim they fail to recognise Lewis’ work as religious commentary but I am simply not buying what he is trying to sell.
And why did the university see it fit to erect this particular sculpture right in the middle of campus? According to the same statement released via email, they revealed that “in the same manner in which the University encourages courageous conversations on a great number of topics, the sculptures are seen as a point of discussion to stimulated debate which will inevitably elicit various points of view.” Oh boy! The university must be most disappointed of all parties involved, for what this ongoing episode has revealed so far is that the most vocal of their students lack critical thinking and debating skills. These students also seem artisticly illiterate as many of them struggle, for instance, to comprehend that this sculpture by Lewis communicates a totally different message to that of Michelangelo’s renowned David, as they mockingly suggest that should the Lewis sculpture be removed from public view, so must that of Michelangelo. They chose to not analyse and discuss the sculpture on display but to use the opportunity in stead to launch emotional attacks on those who, in a civil manner, asked the authorities who placed the statue on campus in the first place, to reconsider their decision. The prime target ended up being (surprise, surprise!) Stellenbosch local scapegoat: Shofar Christian Church. The reason being that leaders from this church initially drew up the petition which was eventually signed by both congregants of the church and also many others. As someone who has been privileged enough to reside in Stellenbosch for more than ten years now, I recognise this as simply another wave of ungrounded attacks against the church. What mostly upsets me though is that these ‘anti-petitioners’ have no real interest in constructive dialogue but are simply allowing themselves and their opinions to be tossed to and fro by whatever the mainstream media and current pop-cultural thinking dictates to them. How many of these anti-protestor protestors visited the Lewis exhibition while it was in town? How many of them make use of the opportunity to engage Shofar’s monthly open-to-public talk series on what they believe and why?
But let’s return our focus to the university itself now. As a former student of the university and current Stellenbosch resident I struggle to connect the HOPE project, which the university has lately been focussing on, with a sculpture of a mythical, raping, god-like figure. Was their idea to challenge members of a civilised, hope-filled institution by displaying a sculpture which encourages wild, immoral behaviour? If so, the result was that some members responded by opposing that message in a civil fashion while others seemed to welcome this call to chaos (not to mention those who responded by vandalising this and other sculptures displayed in the exhibition).
When I first enrolled in the university I learnt that ‘Stellenbosch stands for an idea‘. I am now slightly confused as to what exactly this idea is? I find it somewhat counter-productive and even irresponsible of a university, which tries to establish itself as a beacon of hope in a struggling country which has recently been named ‘Rape Capital of the World‘, to shamelessly and without much explanation welcome such a sculpture onto their campus. Not even to mention the fact that young women walking around on campus have been victims of rape and are victims of a culture which objectifies them as sexual props used to grant social status to men. I suggest the university and also the residents of Stellenbosch carefully consider which ideals they so boldly defend in the name of progressiveness.
I mentioned in my initial post that “it is no more open-minded to be immediately in favour of every new and different thing entering your sphere of movement than it is to reject it out of hand. At times the more open-minded ones are those willing to consider history and learn from it and on those grounds oppose a seemingly new idea.” I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide which of the parties involved are the open-minded ones. Is it those rejecting or accepting the sculpture simply by the looks of it? Or the ones launching ad hominem attacks on those opposing, or otherwise welcoming, the presense of the sculpture on campus? Perhaps it is those considering the bigger picture and whether the sculpture is contributing to the vision and promoting the established values of the university and town of Stellenbosch?
“Our instincts are obviously in conflict. The satisfaction of one demands the denial of another.” -CS Lewis