A LONE protest by a student artist against South Africa’s patriarchal society in which she posed naked peeling potatoes and tearing pages from the Bible has now gone national.
Last week, Celeste Coetzee’s show was banned from an exhibition in Franschhoek showing Unisa students’ work.
On Saturday, artists and supporters gathered under the Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek and at the River Cafe in Potchesfstroom wearing black robes and bonnets, peeling potatoes in imitation of Coetzee’s work.
Supporters from all over South Africa peeled potatoes and posted pictures on the Facebook group page called “Celeste Coetzee Bruid Ontklee” (Bride Undressing).
Coetzee’s work criticised the chauvinist beliefs of evangelist leader and Faith Like Potatoes author Angus Buchan.
Coetzee said the reception was overwhelming: “People came up to us at the protest offering their support. Tourists from Germany and Holland said they had similar issues with freedom of speech. Only one Afrikaner woman shouted at us from afar, saying negative things about our message.”
Belinda Blignaut, a Cape Town artist known for her provocative work, said: “It’s more than just mere injustice done to Celeste. It’s about freedom of speech.”
Coetzee said “rape of freedom of speech” and “censorship” were the main reasons for the protest.
Other artists who joined the demonstration included Richard Strydom, Elmarie Claasens and Clare Menck.
Coetzee said: “I didn’t expect so much support. I knew my work would be controversial, but it’s really wonderful that my message has now spread throughout the country.”
The message was strengthened by the choice of protest venue, Coetzee said. The central female figure on the Huguenot monument personifies religious freedom with a Bible in one hand and broken chains in another. She is shown casting off her cloak of oppression and demonstrating her spiritual freedom.
Unisa issued a statement saying: “We are dismayed that one of our students has been banned from the exhibition and therefore want to give the assurance that we will retain full curatorial autonomy of all future student exhibitions.”
Unisa also encouraged the debate about artistic freedom, and said it was pleased that its students remained active in the discussion.
Coetzee said that she spoke to her lecturers at Unisa on Saturday before the protest, and they were excited about the demonstration.
She said she had had no contact with Carina Bekker, the curator at Grande Provence gallery in Franschhoek who banned her work.
“I am thinking of leading more protests in the new year,” Coetzee said. “In the meantime, I’m focused on finishing my studies and continuing to be involved in the freedom of expression debate.”