'Censorship' of artworks: UCT's response

Elijah Moholola says removal of pieces from campus an act of dialogue not censorship

UCT response on inaccurate claims of censorship of artworks

4 October 2018

In response to two recent articles published by PoliticsWeb (“When banning things was bad,” 19 September 2018 and “Censorship by the mob,” 25 September 2018), the University of Cape Town (UCT) wishes to set the record straight regarding the inaccurate and incorrect allegation of censorship of art at the institution.

Many of the artworks mentioned in one of the pieces have been removed from the campus, but not in an act of censorship as claimed but rather to open a dialogue regarding the place of artworks on campus. In contrast to claims made in both articles, the artworks have not been removed with no explanation; as the process has continuously been communicated to the university community that all artworks on campus were under review.

The review is being conducted by the university’s Works of Art Committee (WOAC) which is not comprised of ‘mindless bureaucrats mindlessly implementing a policy of censorship’ but rather respected academics, curators, artists and art historians. This grouping is a stark comparison to communist Joseph Stalin and his allies – who used censorship to further their political views – and to which one of the articles implies similarity with the WOAC. We find this deeply disrespectful to those on the committee.

Both articles refer to how artistic expression was oppressed in the past and now after democracy, globally, it is claimed to be happening again. Although this may be true elsewhere in the world, it is not happening at UCT. We, as the rest of South Africa, are experiencing a period of transformation. The university is not immune to the developments in our society, and is on its way to abandoning the model of the detached ivory tower.

In any institution, be it a museum, art gallery or educational institution, artworks are routinely reviewed based on shifting contexts and themes. Some may emerge again later in a different context; others remain in storage. Any gallery or museum curator will tell you that some artworks in their collection have never been publicly displayed.

One of the articles claims further that “the Libraries failed to uphold the artists’ rights throughout these events” while the other asserts that UCT is “prostrating itself to the fascism and ignorance of the ‘woke’ generation.” While we may at times disagree with the opinions and actions of our students, we respect their right to them, a university is a space where debate is welcomed and a series of discussions particularly around the Sarah Baartman statue have been hosted on campus recently.

It is also important to remember that the university is also not a closed and controlled space in the same way a gallery is. At an art gallery, you may choose to look at a work once and decide whether you like it or not. You have the freedom to stay with it or leave. In a corridor that leads to your lecture hall or the library, which you enter and exit every single day of your educational life, you have no choice but to repeatedly encounter this work. For some students these artworks may solicit unhealed wounds with which some are not able to cope given the weight of symbols that affirm their existence elsewhere. But many students simply can’t cope – they have neither the resources to do so, nor the access to symbols that are overwhelmingly affirmative. The university believes that our students views should therefore be taken into account, along with that of other stakeholders.

The story of the statue, the reasons behind its covering and the reasons against have never been kept from the public and therefore we fail to see how contemplating the positioning of the statue is impeding one’s right of access to information or the flow thereof. UCT, as per the LIASA Code of Conduct, supports intellectual freedom. We support the rights of our staff and students to debate the display of various works of art in an intellectual and organised way taking into account various viewpoints.

Lastly, one author implies that UCT is not upholding one’s constitutional right to expression. As a university we do not dictate to academics, artists, researchers, inventors or students what to create. However, when these creations appear hurtful or insensitive to our increasingly diverse student body, it is our responsibility hear their voices.

Elijah Moholola, UCT Communication and Marketing Department.