In July 2020, when law student Chumani Maxwele flung faeces from a portable toilet cannister at the Cecil John Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, he told onlookers that he felt suffocated by the colonial names and memorials. “Maxwele complained that most black students could not breathe on campus because of the claustrophobia produced by English colonial dominance at UCT,” wrote anthropologists Shannon Jackson and Steven Robins in a journal article. Maxwele’s protest performance at the base of the statue in April 2015 was politically symbolic: it brought the periphery to the center in a city where inadequate sanitation is just one of many perpetuating inequities. Academics like Jacklyn Cock call this a kind of slow violence, something that extends over time, “insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible.”
Maxwele’s actions made it all quite plain to see and famously triggered the Rhodes Must Fall movement. This not only eventually toppled the seated bronze figure of Rhodes—carted off in April 2015 by authorities on a flatbed truck—it set off a series of calls and responses for decolonisation and systemic change in society more broadly, which spread to other spaces and places.
Fast forward to 2020 and artworks in public space are once again a vector of rage as public protests ricochet around the globe following the death by asphyxiation of George Floyd, killed by police in Minneapolis in May. Resurgent and sustained Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the structural racism imbricated into everyday life. These protests have included targeting symbols of colonial, imperialist, and racist pasts. A statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader and merchant, was this month dunked in the harbour in Bristol (UK) and another of Christopher Columbus was decapitated in Boston (US), before being removed by authorities. Following a long and fractious debate, Oxford University (UK) finally decided that it will remove its own Rhodes statue from Oriel College and conduct an inquiry into the issues surrounding it.
Back in South Africa, meanwhile, events this month came full circle.
At a popular public site on the slopes of Table Mountain, located immediately behind the university campus where Rhodes was in 2015 ousted from his plinth, another iconic Rhodes bust was decapitated with an angle-grinder. Until last week, this bronze artwork gazed out over the whole of Cape Town from its elevated pedestal. It was located at the top of a long flight of steps, with bronze horses and lions to either side, a row of imposing pillars in front; a vast Rhodes Memorial. Now, there is a gaping hole in place of the statue’s head. The right hand is still in situ, where it formerly propped up the pensive head in Rodin-like “seated thinker” pose.
It’s the second time this Rhodes statue has been targeted. Five months after Rhodes fell, this same bust in September 2015 lost its nose. It was angle-grinded off in the dead of night and the head was set alight, leaving charcoal marks behind. Bright red graffiti was also spraypainted at the time onto the commemorative stone block underneath: “The Master’s nose betrays him.” This in apparent reference to Nikolai Gogol, a 19th century Russian writer, whose absurdist novel The Nose (1836) features a protagonist who wakes up one day to find his nose has left his face and develops a life of its own. His misfortune can be read as downfall brought on by pride. Other graffiti calling Rhodes out was also sprayed alongside. South African National Parks employees, who manage the site, had to scrub it off the following morning.
An anonymous email sent to an art collective, Tokolos Stencil, at the time suggested the severed nose would go on a journey. The bust regained its nose—a bit of an odd-looking restoration. This aligns with the Gogol script where the nose ultimately returns to its humbled owner. But Rhodes Memorial and other zombie monuments could take a cue from the UCT plinth next door. After Rhodes was removed, the crated void came to symbolically represent a vital open question: how do we deal with the unfinished business of the past? And a surprisingly poetic answer has been spontaneously generated. Far from being empty, the UCT plinth hosts an ongoing performative second life of temporary interventions. These have ranged from graffiti to poetry, performance, signage, art and other disruptions. Together, they contest, negotiate, and enact different ideas of what a common space could be—public space that belongs to everybody and to nobody. The open plinth is a collaborative and constantly mutating art of the commons that can grant some breathing room to reimagine the public sphere.