Imagine living in a country where one of the animals it is most famous for cannot be the subject of public sculpture because it is associated with an opposition political party.
Imagine, in the twenty first century, a minister of arts and culture in a ‘democratic’ country (with one of the most enlightened constitutions) that finds a photograph of two women lying in an embrace offensive and pornographic.
Imagine a country where ignorance and incompetence is rewarded by powerful positions in high office, unchecked and blindly supported and defended by the ruling party.
Imagine a country where people want to remain anonymous when criticising the government for fear of recrimination.
Imagine a country once so full of promise gone mad, and that country is yours.
ANC (African National Council) councillors in Durban recently ordered work to be stopped on a R1.5 million commissioned pubic sculpture by artist Andries Botha. The sculpture features three elephants emerging from a water hole and the work is intended for a traffic island alongside a city freeway. The reason given for calling a halt to the project is that the elephant is a symbol of an opposition party, the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party), and that the party features an elephant in its logo.
Last year South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana (former minister of agriculture) stormed out of an exhibition at the country’s constitutional court in Johannesburg because according to a press release she issued, ‘It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building’. The exhibition Innovative Women, sponsored by her department featured ten women artists. It would appear that a photograph by artist Zanele Muholi prompted the minister’s outburst and the very public display of disdain.
What has emerged from these two incidents connected to public art is that there is no credible leadership coming from a minister whose portfolio is so powerful that her mandate is ‘to promote social cohesion and nation building’. According to the minister’s official biography she has no learning or experience in anything remotely related to art and culture. And clearly the minister has no notion of what constitutes either art or pornography. What exactly qualifies her to prescribe to a nation what constitutes art?
We can learn and heed the true meaning of these two inconceivable events by considering the seminal words of Benedict Anderson, theorist, academic and author of Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism (1983). Simplistically stated, what Anderson suggests is that what defines a nation is an imagined political community. How the ruling party imagines itself and the nation is then reflected in its public art and architecture.
If the elephant saga and the minister’s dramatic and ill-considered exit in protestation of intimacy shown between same sex couples is anything to go by, the message from our so-called leaders is loud and clear. The would-be autocrats imagine this country as one without political opposition, so much so that one of Africa’s most prized animals cannot be seen in a public sculpture. And equally frightening, our rulers imagine this nation as one where freedom of personal and artistic expression has no place.
I see red flags and hear alarm bells everywhere. Oppressive apartheid era restrictions and censorship are making a comeback with an even more insidious, omnipresent neo-conservative tone, taking away hard earned freedoms.
Is the minister’s intention to build a nation by parading her personal prejudices and narrow-mindedness as official policy thereby instilling a culture of intolerance?
But this time the art community is not planning to sit back and allow the minister free reign.