Naked walls adorned only with nails. A desolate student library, chairs tucked neatly under desks, a ghoulish sculpture wrapped head to toe in cloth at its centre. An empty thousand-seat lecture theatre, decaying in the aftermath of an arson attack. The charred remains of paintings and photographs laid to rest like dismembered body parts. Rooms and corridors empty, the lights left on.
The scenes are unnerving – a series of photographs evoking post-apocalyptic stillness but shot in black-and-white, suggesting that we might be looking back in time. Each image, tightly framed, appears as if it could be a forensic clue in a murder mystery. Disoriented, the viewer wonders what has happened here. When were these photographs taken?
David Goldblatt’s Structures (Student Protests) constitutes his final critique of his native South Africa, before his death in June 2018. The works formed part of the photographer’s two international retrospectives in 2018, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris last year, and currently (until 3 March 2019) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia.
Structures (Student Protests) conveys the state of affairs in South African universities over a period of two particularly turbulent years (2015–2016) when students across the country were protesting for the decolonisation of higher education under the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, birthing the Fallism movement. Fallism rejects the 1990s ideal of a reconciled non-racial “rainbow nation”. It champions interventionist strategies, termed by South African academic Lwandile Fikeni as “an aesthetics of rage”, giving rise to a salient new discourse. Black students no longer aspire to be passively accepted into educational institutions from which they were officially excluded since 1948 when apartheid began, but are uprooting the whole value system underpinning these insitutions and demanding a restructuring from the ground up.
The #RhodesMustFall protests centred around events at the University of Cape Town (UCT), that began when politics student Chumani Maxwele threw human faeces at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the university campus in March 2015. This led to UCT removing the statue the following month – a gesture of acknowledgement from one of South Africa’s oldest universities that it was no longer appropriate to attribute pride of place to a public artwork commemorating a British imperialist. For Maxwele, and the snowballing Fallist movement, this bronze rendering of Rhodes, leaning forward in an armchair as if in a moment of profound contemplation, was a humiliating symbol that needed to be aesthetically degraded before it could be removed. Fikeni notes that it was at this moment that “the language of Fallism jumps across the world and is picked up in Oxford and Princeton”. He pointed out that, “at the centre of the discourse is a common aesthetics – an insistence on moving beyond the boundaries of ‘civil’ discourse towards attacking the symbols of white supremacy through disruptive acts of rage”.
UCT’s response was to set up an Artworks Task Team of students and lecturers to remove or cover up a total of 75 artworks from the university’s collection, an initiative accompanied by the hashtag #doesthisoffendUCT.
Meanwhile the protests turned increasingly violent, with students removing paintings and photographs from the university walls and setting piles of them alight, amid other destructive acts to university property. The attacks on the university’s art collection were intended to draw attention to the accommodation shortage for students from low-income families. Photographs of Molly Blackburn, a leading member of the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement, were burnt to ashes. A life-size sculpture of the grossly exploited nineteenth-century KhoiKhoi woman, Sarah Baartman, by part-Xhosa, part-Coloured artist Willie Bester was covered up.
In April 2015, Goldblatt, by now in his mid-eighties, decided to document these historic events. This time he flew from his home in Johannesburg across the country, rather than driving the famous bespoke “bakkie” – four by four – in which he had tirelessly traversed and documented South Africa for decades.
Structures (Student Protests) forms the latter part of Goldblatt’s career-making series, Structures of Dominion and Democracy, which maps South Africa’s idiosyncratic infrastructure from the apartheid years onwards, from a towering Dutch Reformed Church to public staircases designed to separate people according to their race at a railway station, to densely packed townships built on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities. The catalogue accompanying Goldblatt’s current retrospective at MCA Australia quotes the photographer on the values he considered to be ingrained within our physical structures: “Embedded in the bricks, mud, stone, wood, plastic, cardboard, steel, aluminium and concrete of all the structures in South Africa are choices we and our forebears have made,” he said. “No building, shack, skyscraper, road, township, walled estate, dorp, city, monument, sculpture, artwork, computer, cellphone or, indeed, anything made by humans, can exist but for choices that gave rise to it and others that are a condition of its continued existence.”
Goldblatt dedicated his career to exposing the subtle ways in which our structures reflect our core values. While sympathetic to the students’ rage and impatience, he was nonetheless vocal in his condemnation of their violent methods and recoiled at what he perceived to be UCT’s undemocratic response of censoring artworks. In response to the latter, Goldblatt removed his work from UCT’s collection and cancelled his bequest to the institution.
This is not to say that the Student Protests photographs are a straightforward criticism of events at UCT. One of the least visually remarkable, but most charged images in the series speaks to the possible layers of ambivalence in Goldblatt’s documentation. The close-up of a blank wall with a hook left hanging in place tells the story of an absent painting by Richard Keresemose Baholo, a black student in the 1990s, which was burnt by UCT students in 2015. The art work depicted the relighting of the torch of academic freedom in 1994 – a hugely eventful year in South Africa’s history. It was perhaps too painful a reminder of the naive “rainbow” optimism of the nineties which heralded, but has not yet yielded, significant social change in the “new” South Africa.
For Goldblatt, our structures should be challenged, but acts of erasure are dangerous. He argued that “when structures cease to exist, their footprints may yet declare much about who and what brought them down” (from the MCA catalogue), suggesting that in covering up and destroying our historical references, however painful they may be to confront, we risk forgetting and repeating brutal acts of the past.
Goldblatt’s concern for the long-term consequences of bypassing democratic modes of protest and narrowing freedom of artistic and academic expression is signalled throughout the Student Protests works. The eerie past/future feeling of the photographs seems to carry a warning of the university’s backwards approach that, with unintentional irony, echoes the censoring strategies enacted by The National Party that governed apartheid South Africa. Student Protests hints at a dystopian world in which spaces for intellectual dialogue have been evacuated and art removed from public view. The photographs point towards an environment in which we no longer hold on to references to the past and risk disappearing into a cultural void.
Throughout his seven-decade career, Goldblatt photographed a range of South African contexts, often subtly revealing the violence underpinning the banalities of the everyday, from a middle-class white man mowing his lawn under the stark African sun to black men working down mine shafts who, with long daily commutes, lived almost entirely in the dark. He was deeply critical of the apartheid regime but refused to wield his camera as a propaganda tool. Goldblatt resisted the role of frontline photographer, though that did not make him a bystander: his images are distinct for their quiet yet searing portrayal of structural, rather than literal, violence – perhaps most poignantly encapsulated in his photograph of the desolate Marikana hill after the 2012 police massacre of thirty-four protesting miners.
It is striking that the most iconic shot of Student Protests, the picture of the “dethroning” of Cecil John Rhodes, was taken by Goldblatt in a moment of action, rather than in the aftermath – the absence of the monument – which would have been more in keeping with the rest of the series. Rather than training his lens to take a close-up, as he does with subsequent images, Goldblatt positions himself behind the crowd of students who have raised their arms to document the scene on their smartphones and tablets, many uploading images and video footage instantly to social media. The students and their modern recording devices take centre stage, filling the foreground, while the statue and the crane appear shrunk in the upper third of his shot.
Goldblatt offers the viewer a multi-layered image: an ageing documentarian of South Africa’s past documenting the new documentarians of the South African present – and future. This image of a crowd of young people wielding cameras can be read as attributing value to the rise of multiple perspectives while at the same time highlighting a collective absence from the moment itself.
Goldblatt’s critically nuanced approach to documenting the fraught dynamics and conditions of his country is encapsulated in his poetic vision that “congealed in innumerable structures and not a few ruins throughout South Africa is the accumulated evidence of who we were, and are. Like geological accretions in the cooling crust of the earth, it tells of the long era of baasskap: of dominion by whites out of which we have come. And it tells of this new time, precariously that of democracy, in which there is much that is redolent of dominion, though by whom is not at all clear” (from the MCA catalogue).
Student Protests captures the knotted tensions at play for Goldblatt himself in his final years of documenting South Africa as well as within this divided 25-year-old democracy. On one level, the photographs operate as warning signals of the potential dangers of censorship, but they also, quite unobtrusively, map an unfolding of events which has marked a significant turn in South Africa from Rainbowism to Fallism. They invoke the guilt-inflected, biblical question What have we done? at the same time as asking, What now? Indeed, while this final contribution to the Structures series is driven by a critical viewpoint, Goldblatt nonetheless hangs back, his focus as ambiguous as it is forensic. These final images are not only of destruction but also of blank walls, waiting to be filled. JQ