Many universities in South Africa have acquired new works of art for key spaces on their campuses. These works convey messages about the advantages of cultural diversity, but recently acquired sculptures, paintings and tapestries also critically engage with histories of racial intolerance and conflict. A current concern among tertiary South African institutions is the influence of British imperialism or Afrikaner nationalism on aspects of their inherited visual culture. Discussions from within the art world around the curatorship of art, memorials, insignia and regalia has shed light on these outmoded colonial value systems which universities w wish to distance themselves from. In Picturing Change , Brenda Schmahmann explores the implications of deploying the visual domain in the service of transformative agendas. In other words, how do universities reflect, through the visual objects on their campuses, on their revisionist aims and endorsements of cultural diversity? While most new commissions are invative, there have been instances in which universities in South Africa have acquired works of art with potentially traditionalist - even backward-looking - implications. And while imperatives to remove inherited imagery may be underpinned by a wish to unsettle white privilege, there have in fact been occasions in which such actions have served to maintain the status quo. Further, while many expected that a post-apartheid era would have freed artists from censorship, some images produced or shown under the auspices of universities have in fact been susceptible to proscription for supposedly articulating hate speech. Schmahmann identifies and analyses a range of approaches taken by universities and commissioned artists towards these 'troublesome' visual objects . This study is the first to consider imagery at a range of tertiary institutions in the country, and it is unique in its exploration of a transformative ethos in the visual domain at universities. It will be invaluable to readers interested in public art and the politics of curating and collecting, and also to those concerned with the challenges involved in transforming contemporary universities into spaces welcoming of diversity in South Africa.
Brenda Schmahmann is Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. She was the editor and primary contributor on Material Matters (2000) and also the author of Through the Looking Glass: Representations of Self by South African Women Artists (2004), for which she won the Rhodes University Vice Chancellor's Book Award.