A respectful retraction: The statue as public art #Rhodes

Ok, so after thinking about it, and after recovering from the emotions raised by this conversation, I’ve come to realise that while I’d like to be involved in the conversation around decolonising South Africa and its spaces, and while I believe in the power of art in public space, my point of view needs to be seriously reconsidered. And I have, thanks to the people involved in this conversation. Thank you for that.

My argument about reclaiming the statue, and any other colonial remnant, as public art and redefining it, is based on a number of flawed positions:

1. This statue is not art. Because the people who want it obliterated/removed say it isn’t. (Refer to point 4).

2. While creatively responding to oppression and pain in my own life is the best way for me to decolonise the world around me in relation to mental health ableist positions, patriarchal positions and cisgender- and hetero/homonormative positions, and while I can suggest this as a way forward for others, the creative redefinition approach is only valid if it comes from someone within the community affected by racial colonialism. (Refer to point 4). And while I as a South African and a South African artist can have an opinion and can make a suggestion, it is something that needs to be championed not by me but by people most directly affected by colonialism, and the statue as symbol of colonialism, oppression and pain.

3. I realise that the reason I was so upset about the response to me that I could and should say and do nothing because I’m white is because I thought that having an opinion and wanting to get involved made me a bad person; a bad white. There is no such thing as a bad or good white in relation to this issue, or any other. I as someone whose forefathers left South Africa in this position am not a ‘good white’ if I try to, with the best of intentions, get involved in any issue where people of colour are speaking out against oppression. (Refer to point 4). Implying that I do not see colour and that I’m not a racist does not make me a good person or a good white. Because this is not about being a good person or a good or bad white. There is colour, there is race. Unless we live in an ideal world there always will be colour and race and gender and privilege. And so I will always be a racist because of the world we live in. All I can do is work on how I perceive others in relation to myself and remind myself of the way my privilege (which is always there, regardless of my class, etc., because I’m white) frames the way I see things and try to think, speak and act from a place where I’m aware of my privilege. It is not a moral issue. It is not a good/bad white issue. It is a self-awareness issue.

4. The thing that upset me most about the reactions to my opinion was being told that I was irrelevant because I’m white; that there is nothing I can do or say in relation to this issue because of the colour of my skin. And this hurt me deeply, and made me very angry. So for a whole 30 hours I felt the way that every single person of colour has felt their whole life, for generations, for decades, for centuries, for ever. And this sobering thought made me realise that while I do understand pain and while I do understand oppression, and while I have experienced both of those things in extreme forms, I have only experienced them as an individual, and in pockets of time.

I, as a white person, have never experienced discrimination because of the group I belong to. I have experienced instances of pain and oppression because of how I look, whom I sleep with, how I choose to identify, how my neurobiology functions or does not function; all of which I can do something about, or, if not, I at least have the privilege of entering spaces where these differentiators are not an issue. I can enter spaces where I am not discriminated against. I have never experienced discrimination because of the colour of my skin – a wholesale discrimination which has no ‘off’ switch; a discrimination which is inescapable; a discrimination which is present even when the people doing the discriminating are doing their best not to discriminate.

Just as I can never relate to people who have not experienced any form of hardship or struggle or sense of alienation, how can I expect to compare the pain and oppression I have faced with someone who, unlike myself, cannot escape this constant and insidious pain and oppression?! I cannot. And I will not. And I apologise for trying to.

And while I believe that our commonalities connect us and our common experiences of otherness in different ways form unbreakable bonds between us, the differences in our experiences, as individuals, as races, as genders, etc., make us and our experiences unknowable to each other. Something that can only force us to treat each other with the utmost respect and a wary, self-reflective refusal to try and pretend that we have any idea what another person’s life is like.

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One thought on “A respectful retraction: The statue as public art #Rhodes

  1. Pingback: The Statue as public art: Rhodes and our responsibility as makers of meaning | life writ large

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