There are many portraits, sculptures and paintings around campus which do not portray black people in a good way, says Ramabina Mahapa.
Cape Town - As you walk in the UCT Oppenheimer Library, you are met with a portrait of a naked white man, on his lap is a black woman, they seem to be having sexual intercourse. The white man has a black mask and the black woman has a white mask.
One level up, you see a metal sculpture of the naked Sarah Baartman. As you turn to your right, you will be met with another portrait depicting a black woman sitting on what I assume to be a rock with her three children in their underwear in a plastic basin bathing – the surrounding is of a poor dwelling.
As you continue with your tour around UCT walking into the Otto Beit building, coming from the food court on your left, you will be met with a portrait of a bull. Inside it is a black man with his genitals exposed, besides the bull is a little white girl and an Afrikaner man.
If you go to middle campus, you will see several black painted sculptures also with their genitals out. You will also find a similar sculpture in the Hoerikwaggo building.
At the entrance of the new Chemical Engineering Building there is a portrait depicting the poor settlements of what seems to be Khayelitsha or Langa. A similar portrait depicting the dwelling of poor black people can be found in the Mafeje room, where the university council meets.
I would urge members of the UCT community to be vigilant. Take a walk around campus in your free time and see for yourself what I speak of. There are many more portraits, sculptures and paintings scattered around campus which do not portray black people in a good way.
There is little from UCT institutional symbolism that says “Black child be proud” of your upbringing and who you are. If the institution really wanted to depict history, why are there no portraits and sculptures of Kwame Nkrumah, Miriam Makeba, Robert Sobukwe, Shaka Zulu, and individuals like Chief Albert Luthuli, for example?
Why is there no portrait of Timbuktu, the first university to be created? If it is history UCT wants to portray, let it not be a skewed one.
Institutions of higher learning, especially previously whites-only ones, should reassess all the paintings and sculptures. Some inappropriate paintings might have been put up before 1994 and institutions should be cautious about what is being displayed in the new dispensation. I share the same views with those who say art must be provocative and depict our history.
Granted, some of the portraits are not demeaning and humiliating in and of themselves, but concern is not necessarily with individual portraits but with the message the collective paintings are saying about someone of my pigmentation.
In the university, I could only find two portraits of the naked white body, and rarely will the portraits on the walls depict something demeaning or humiliating of white people.
Already the institution is filled with sculptures and statues portraying dominant white males such as Cecil John Rhodes. Even the names of buildings are dominated by white people.
I have noted two broad themes being recurrent in UCT’s paintings: poverty of black people and the naked black body – more so, the genitalia of the black man. These artworks reinforce the inferiority complex of the black student while concurrently reaffirming the superiority complex of the white student.
All this depiction of black poverty is meant to romanticise poverty. This reminds me of European exchange students who come to Africa for the sole purpose of experiencing poverty and thereby reinforcing their satisfaction about their privileged conditions.
I have heard quite a few of them boast over having lived for six months in poor conditions and then claiming to understand the living condition of black people. How absurd.
The institutional symbolism around our campus, with the institutional culture, constitute the most vivid form of UCT’s eurocentricity. How then can an African student identify with UCT?
* Ramabina Mahapa is a member of the UCT SRC.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.