If you live in a town or city, think about its public spaces. Are there any statues, monuments or plaques commemorating people of the past? Who do these statues, monuments or plaques commemorate? And who is left out?
Sethembile Msezane draws our attention to public commemorative spaces, whom they celebrate – and whom they do not. She describes her experience of walking down the streets in Cape Town: “I couldn’t identify with the symbols and the figures that were supposed to represent a kind of national identity. These [monuments and statues] were of white men.” That most of the statues were of white colonial men reflected the fact that – for the several hundred years that Europeans had lived in South Africa – these men had been the ones who held all the power. They had power over other races, and they had power over women. The result was that women, especially black women, were still made to feel unseen and powerless in these public spaces. “In all of this I couldn’t see anything African,” she says. “I could not see anything that was like my mother and my aunts, or women that I knew. So for me, it was a task of reclaiming histories that had been omitted from public spaces.”
How does she fill those gaps?
She uses her own body. She turns herself into a representation of the histories of black women whose statues are absent in our commemorative public spaces. She juxtaposes those women’s histories with the white, male statues and colonial buildings, that are the remnants of our colonial past.
One of the “white men” commemorated in this way in many South African towns and cities, was Cecil John Rhodes. In the late 19th century, Cecil John Rhodes, on behalf of Britain and Queen Victoria, relentlessly colonised and seized much of southern Africa, and everything in it. He did this to enrich the British Empire, and to enrich himself personally as well. Although he bequeathed much of it for “the public good”, nevertheless for many South Africans he came to stand for everything that was unjust, greedy, racist and exploitative about the colonial period. In
the 2015 ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests, students demonstrated against the presence of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the Cape Town University campus. Finally, the University authorities agreed: Rhodes (or his statue) was indeed going to be taken down.
Msezane chose the event of the statue coming down, to stage a ‘memorial’ performance. She wore a winged costume, to refer to an ancient stone carving of the bird Chapungu, from Great Zimbabwe – given to Rhodes for his Groote Schuur estate in Cape Town, and never returned to Zimbabwe till this day.
Msezane stood facing the crowd – her back to the statue. “I looked at people’s phones and sunglasses, trying to see the reflection of the statue coming down. I saw the shadow move and thought, ‘This is the moment.’ That’s when I lifted my wings. I was up there for about four hours… My feet were blue, I was sunburnt; I had heat stroke and blurry vision from looking directly into the sun. But I felt like we were beginning to question this idealistic ‘rainbow nation’.”
Talk About This
Look at these images, and read their titles.
Sethembile Msezane places herself in public spaces, her presence changing the landscape in a certain way. How do you imagine the silent presence of a “black woman-as-statue” might affect passers-by?
How might it make people (as she says) “question this idealistic ‘rainbow nation’”?
Is there a public space that you know well, which you feel might need such an intervention? Why? If you were to plan an intervention, who would it commemorate, and how?