Monumental follies

Andrew Donaldson writes on statues to the great and not so good, and Carl Niehaus on a plinth


CECIL Rhodes, that old racist, is once again in the news. This time the controversy concerns the decision by the UK’s cultural secretary, Nadine Dorries, to grant listed status to a memorial plaque on the exterior of a building owned by Oxford’s Oriel College.

The plaque, which features a bust of Rhodes, is not to be confused with the statue on Rhodes House, another Oriel building nearby. Both bust and statue gaze down on the merely mortal from their first floor mountings and, in order to be suitably offended, passersby must crane their necks to gaze upwards at the maniac. Dudgeon and outrage aside, it seems that neither of these memorials will be falling anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the work of a British artist, Hew Locke, appears to offer a solution to further sparing such memorials from the wrath of Fallists, be they in South Africa or further afield, and in the process giving them new life. 

We are, however, getting ahead of ourselves, and so back to Hertfordshire’s finest imperialist… ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

A decision was taken in June 2020 by Oriel’s governing body to remove his statue from the Rhodes House exterior. A committee investigating the matter ruled however that attempts to do so would probably fail as both the statue and the building are Grade II listed and warrant preservation. A legal challenge, it was felt, would be too costly and not worth the risk. So there it stands.

The Rhodes plaque, meanwhile, can be found on the King Edward St building where Rhodes was in residence as a student in 1881. Although the building is in Oxford’s conservation area, the heritage body, Historic England, ruled in 2020 that the plaque lacked the “richness of detail” for listed status.

Permission was nevertheless required for its removal and, upon receipt of a petition from the Oxford Fallists in November 2015, Oriel College announced it would be approaching the city council for such consent.

They claimed the wording on the plaque, erected in 1906 by the former Cape diamond merchant and Rhodes associate Sir Alfred Mosely, was “a political tribute” from a “private individual”; as such, its “continuing display … is inconsistent with our principles”.

No planning application was apparently ever submitted and Dorries last month awarded the plaque Grade II listed status, sparking condemnation from historians and academics who accuse the Tories of cultural warfare and glossing over the brutality of colonialism.

Grade II listed status is, of course, not a trifling matter, something the first ANC diplomatic mission to the Court of St James discovered upon trying to cleanse South Africa House of the embarrassing reminders therein of the past.

The building, on London’s Trafalgar Square, was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and completed in 1933. Its Grade II listing, conferred in 1982, meant that South Africa House was subject to England’s heritage laws; Pretoria, therefore, had no legal right to alter, destroy or remove any aspect of the building’s interior or exterior.

This posed a challenge for Lorna de Smidt, the art historian and political scientist who was tasked with the embassy makeover. She placed removable glass panels over “idealised” murals. These were etched with quotations which contextualised the troubling Pierneef landscapes that adorned the walls of the embassy.

“We had to acknowledge the past, and accept that it is there,” she told one London newspaper. “You can’t just airbrush things out of history and pretend they didn’t exist.”

De Smidt, who I interviewed in London for the Sunday Times in 2004, passed away recently. Her death was largely ignored by the South African media, which is a pity. She got the South Africa House commission after Cheryl Carolus, with whom she shared a prison cell as a detainee in 1976, was appointed high commissioner to London. recently.

Prior to that, De Smidt had worked as a journalist in exile. Her work included an expose of the fat police spy Craig Williamson for the Dutch newspaper Vrij Nederland as well as contributing to BBC documentaries on South Africa.

The problem with the makeover, I would argue, is that, in attempting to offset representations of the apartheid past with the democratic present, the reliance on “struggle” imagery becomes a bit of a struggle in itself and the result is dreadfully shouty, earnest and sanctimonious, much like the stuff on the walls of the Wits University student union cafeteria in the 1980s.

Happily, not many people visit the embassy, and these jarring juxtapositions remain hidden from the public. But the originals have at least been kept in place, thanks to a process that could be described as a forerunner of the UK’s present “retain and explain” policy, which, as one minister put it, is aimed at protecting controversial monuments and artefacts “from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

In Birmingham, meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games have also been drawn into the fray. Critics charge that that event, once known as the British Empire Games, is a “helpful tool” to divert attention from the ills of the colonial past: Britain, the Guardian sportswriter Tumaini Carayol noted, would be able to present itself itself as “a more compassionate nation compared with other former imperial powers, the country that dismantled its empire to become friends with former subjects”.

The Rev Charles Morris, Barbados’s deputy high commissioner to the UK, was as blunt. The Games, he has said, will not repair the historical damage caused by colonialism, and Britain should pay reparations for slavery to countries whose people it once held in bondage: “There is no concept of reparations at all for Britain. Now if these humanitarians were as humanitarian as they said then they would have looked after the former enslaved persons now, by compensating them.”

Such sentiment is now common in the Caribbean. The decision by Barbados last year to become a republic has set off a chain reaction in the region, with Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda now discussing the possibility of following suit.

Mindful, perhaps, of this surging republicanism, a Birmingham gallery commissioned the aforementioned Locke to produce a public work as part of the cultural festival that coincides with the Games. As an artist preoccupied with monarchy and empire, he set about “reworking” the imposing marble figure of Queen Victoria erected in the city centre in 1901.

The playfully provocative result, titled Foreign Exchange, is way more subtle than flinging shit at a statue or lopping off its head. And therein lies its strength.

First, Locke placed a wooden ship around the existing statue of Victoria. He then added five replicas of the monarch, each cast in patinated bronze, as fellow passengers.

Each of these replicas wears a martial helmet and sports a medal relating to a key battle in Britain’s imperial history: one commemorates the British East India Company’s victory over Tipu Sultan in 1799; another marks the second Afghan war of 1878-1880; another the Ashanti campaign; another commemorates the centenary of the capture of Trinidad and Tobago by the Royal Navy in 1797; and the fifth memorialises the looting by British soldiers of the Benin bronzes, now held in the British Museum.

Foreign Exchange is a temporary work and comes down on August 15. Locke, an artist preoccupied with monarchy and empire, explained the rationale behind the piece in a recent interview with the Spectator: “I am trying to create something attractive that opens up conversations rather than shoves people into their echo chambers. I don’t want to be didactic, because that never works, and I don’t have a fixed agenda. I’m not a republican. I’m not a royalist, either.”

His art, his interviewer suggested, appeared to explore the principle espoused by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin that “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.

Locke had been coming up with ideas for projects like Foreign Exchange for years, but most had been rejected. In 2006, he proposed covering the controversial statue of the Bristol slaver Sir Edward Colston with cowrie shells and skulls, “all symbols of what he had done, this evil man, to black people”. It was not to be, though, and Locke confessed to being shocked when protestors toppled the statue in June 2020 and dumped it in the Bristol harbour. He is not a fan, he said, of tearing down such memorials, however controversial they may be.

He may have an ally in the South African artist William Kentridge, whose recent suggestion that statues of contentious historical figures, like Winston Churchill, should be buried up to their waists so that viewers can “look down upon them”, drew an outraged response from conservative commentators.

It is the irreverence of such ideas that may ultimately save such public monuments. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in the Company Gardens, Cape Town, is one example.

This grandiose piece, controversial even at the time of its unveiling in 1908, features a full body replica of Rhodes wearing a three-piece suit, standing with his left hand raised and pointing north.

The simple addition, however, of a yoyo in that hand transforms it from an image of an imperial berserker to that of a simpleton playing with a child’s toy. Those who wish to muddle about for deeper symbolism may regard the yoyo as representative of history’s ever-changing fortunes. Don’t push it, though.

Similarly, at the other end of Adderley Street, a few beach balls, umbrellas and a plastic spade and bucket placed alongside the statues of Jan and Maria van Riebeeck would strip these works of controversy. Rather than colonisers, they’d be viewed as Vaalies down for the holidays. Some regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) suggest a jet-ski should also be included, but this is Cape Town, not Plettenberg Bay.

Which brings us to the ruling party’s mania for cluttering the landscape with monuments to itself. Readers will recall the hissy fit thrown upon the discovery of a small rabbit hidden in the ear of the statue of Nelson Mandela that was unveiled at the Union Buildings on December 16, 2013.

At the time, Mogomotsi Mogodiri, then the department of arts and culture’s spokesman, told the BBC: “We don’t think it’s appropriate because Nelson Mandela never had a rabbit in his ear.” This was an interesting argument, one commentator noted, considering that the statue by Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, was nine metres high and made of bronze — and the former president was neither of these things.

Dali Tambo, the CEO of the heritage development company which had commissioned the work, had this inane reaction: “That statue isn’t just a statue of a man, it’s the statue of a struggle, and one of the most noble in history… So it’s belittling, in my opinion, if you then take it in a jocular way and start adding rabbits in the ear.”

The thing is, Prinsloo and Van Vuuren’s “Madibunny” signature is part of a recognised artistic tradition dating back to the Middle Ages when sculptors working in cathedrals would include “hidden” profane images among the sacred carvings they produced. It’s not known whether the Department of Arts and Culture are aware of such things, arts and culture being their remit. But what’s now needed, of course, is a statue of a giant rabbit at the Union Buildings, one with a tiny Nelson Mandela in its ear.

It is said that some monuments are irredeemable and should be scrapped altogether. One example is the Jacob Zuma “site of arrest” memorial in Groot Marico in North West province. But I’d argue that this clunky nonsense, no doubt “inspired” by the striking memorial outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal at the site where Mandela was arrested in 1962, should be retained as a lasting reminder of the idiocy of the Msholozi cult.

Speaking of which, mention must be made of the cult’s kitchen toto, Carl Niehaus. The columnist Tom Eaton recently declared on Facebook that a photograph of Carl at the ANC policy conference with a poster demanding the removal of Cyril Ramaphosa was “pure art” as the plinth-like box on which the Radical Economic Transformation cheerleader was standing also bore a sticker advertising “penis enlargement”. Our man being a large enough one as it is.

Cruel, I know, but the image is now a popular meme on social media, with the text on Carl’s poster altered to read, “Jobless” and “Soek werk” among other jibes. He has, in other words, become an item of interactive art. Which is something, and with time, Carl may also join the swollen ranks of “national treasures” that we supposedly must revere but instead are compelled to ridicule.

Lastly, there is sports, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa’s bonkers R22-million flag proposal to consider. This project, shelved following a public outcry in May, is now reportedly back on the cards and the tone-deaf Mthethwa is persisting with plans to erect this monstrosity at Freedom Park, outside Pretoria, in the interests of “nation building and social cohesion”.

That flag will in all likelihood never fly. But we don’t mind Mthethwa banging on about it and his perverse notions of turning us into North Koreans. We could all do with a good laugh, and if that’s not socially cohering, well, what is?