Cambridge and the Black Atlantic

I have recently been reflecting on a decade lived back in Cambridge, following a decade in Birmingham between 2003 and 2013. While Birmingham’s world famous Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was closed the year before I arrived, the ideas and approaches it developed were still very much in the air, subtly permeating the city’s cultural institutions.

Moving the Vibes sound system with its architect and builder Mervyn Pinnock, BMAG technician, 2005

In 2005, I worked on the Vibes project at Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, exploring musical connections between West Africa, the West Indies and the UK’s West Midlands – a response to ideas developed by one of the centre’s most eminent former students, Paul Gilroy. His 1993 book, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, has since become a classic, inspiring a huge amount of work by other people in the three decades since it was published.

On returning to Cambridge from Birmingham (I lived here from the age of 8 to 18), it was at times challenging to adapt to a place that was on the surface very familiar, but which nevertheless embodied sets of assumed values and knowledges that could feel quite alien. I actually think the walled colleges with their patrolled gatehouses are an extremely effective architecture of alienation – reminders for most people of their exclusion, but equally of potential exclusion even for those who gain temporary admittance.

When I left my job at the University of Cambridge in 2018, I often spent the drive to Norwich listening to Over the Bridge, a podcast set up by a group of former Cambridge students of mostly African descent. Listening to them discussing their experiences of the city helped me process my own, and in the process gain a perspective on Cambridge that recognised its sometimes overwhelming ‘w/Whiteness’.

In reviewing the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current exhibition, Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance, I was struck by the ways it continued to embody ‘w/Whiteness’, despite ostensibly shifting its focus to Black Atlantic lives. My review will be published in the Journal of Museum Ethnography only after the exhibition has closed, so I have decided to make it available here:

Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance
8 September 2023 – 7 January 2024
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Entering the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Black Atlantic exhibition, one is confronted by a pair of 18th century portraits. One depicts an unnamed man of African descent, the other Richard Fitzwilliam who, on his death in 1816 left the University of Cambridge a collection that formed the basis of the museum that still carries his name, as well as £100,000 that was at least partly derived from profits in the trade in enslaved people. 

An adjacent text panel asks ‘Who gets remembered and why?’, remarking on the first portrait’s unknown sitter ‘the fact that after decades of research his identity still remains unknown highlights the ways the dominant culture in Britain has failed to record Black sitters’ identities and histories.’ In borrowing its title from, what after thirty years of continuous relevance must be acknowledged as Paul Gilroy’s 1993 masterpiece, the exhibition announces a shift in focus onto previously unnamed and unseen people of African descent.

The Fitwilliam Museum’s main portico with exhibition banners featuring Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point 29 (Duyster)

Banners hanging from lampposts across Cambridge as well as the museum’s impressive neo-Classical portico feature Barbara Walker’s Vanishing Point 29 (Duyster) in which, according to an introduction to the exhibition catalogue by the museum’s Director, Luke Syson, ‘a Black man, tenderly, exquisitely drawn in graphite, now has a prominence in contrast to the embossed white figures who almost disappear before our eyes.’

One can certainly read Walker’s image as directing our attention to the central graphite figure, but in a curious figure-ground reversal, I couldn’t help but see the image as a portrait of w/Whiteness itself, ‘the dominant culture’ which remains an elusive entity that almost disappears before our eyes. The three works by Walker in the exhibition are suggestive of what Gilroy called ‘the dislocating dazzle of “whiteness”’, in which racial minorities are made to see themselves as others see them, a condition defined by W.E.B. Dubois in 1903 as ‘double consciousness’ and adopted by Gilroy to be paired with ‘modernity’ in the subtitle of his book. 

A useful guide to the exhibition labels tells us that ‘To call attention to historic and ongoing racialised inequalities, the collective terms ‘Black’ and ‘Indigenous’ are capitalised throughout while “white” is not.’ I can’t help feeling that this form of what linguists would call ‘markedness’ enables ’w/Whiteness’ to remain unremarked upon, almost invisible and therefore dominant and dominating, a criticism one could certainly level at the exhibition, but also at the Fitzwilliam as an institution and Cambridge as a city.

The exhibition’s introductory panel tells us that stories ‘help us distinguish fact from fiction and history from myth’but these genres frequently bleed into one another in ways that can be hard to disentangle. Indeed, the version of Atlantic history presented here felt rather closer to myth, a familiar and regularly repeated blending of past and present that can be put to work as a charter for renewed action.

The exhibition provides an extremely valuable opportunity to look closely at loaned works such as Dirk Valkenburg’s painting of party on a plantation in Surinam, one of the only images to provide a glimpse of the centrality of music within Black Atlantic lives, at least in Gilroy’s account of them. What rescued this exhibition from feeling like another slightly tired rendition of a jazz standard, however, was the space it made for contemporary works by artists of African descent.

Alexis Peskine’s (2020) Ifá, with which the exhibition ends

Barbara Walker’s pieces provided an energising chorus that returned throughout the show, augmented by solos from Keith Piper, Donald Locke, and the powerful portrait by Alexis Peskine, mirroring words and image, that ends the exhibition. While these works by male artists from the 1970s, 1980s and the 2020s confront the brutalisations of Black masculinity, they retain an understandably violent edge, also evoked in the blood red edging of the exhibition labels. 

Recent works by Barbara Walker, Sokari Douglas Camp, Alberta Whittle and Jacqueline Bishop spoke to Atlantic histories with a different voice. For me, it was Jacqueline Bishop’s 2021 History at the Dinner Table –a set of 18 dinner plates decorated with historic images of women from the Black Atlantic – together with a video piece produced for the exhibition, that spoke most powerfully to the challenges of our contemporary moment, as well as the possibilities of repair that can be glimpsed in an exhibition like this. 

One of the plates from Jacqueline Bishop’s (2021) History at the Dinner Table, featuring the image of a woman originally engraved by William Blake for John Gabriel Stedman’s (1796) Narrative of five years expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam

Bishop suggests in the video, available on YouTube, that she found that the way to dialogue with Black women’s histories and voices was through the decorative and the domestic. While her plates feature extremely violent images of persecution, Bishop speaks of her desire to give these women back their modesty, their humanity, their beauty, their vulnerability and all the human feelings they were denied by slavery. She also outlines her aspirations for the exhibition and her work within it:

When people come to the exhibition and when they look at these plates on display, if I could wave a magic wand and get what I want, I want them to leave with a heightened sense of, of course the enslaved, particularly enslaved women and some of the difficulties, savagery they had to deal with in their lives, but I also, implicit in this, I want them to leave with a sense of mutuality and mutual endeavour…

If Dr Victoria Avery and I can find the means to have these difficult conversations, her as a white British woman and myself as a Black Jamaican and American women, it is possible.

Final video featuring Victoria Avery and Jacqueline Bishop

Here, even if only briefly, w/Whiteness is named and identified, emerging from its shifting trans-oceanic currents as something to be charted. The final frame of the video brings together the smiling faces of Jacqueline Bishop and Victoria Avery, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Keeper of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts who worked on the show, echoing the pair of male portraits with which the exhibition begins. It was in this electronic moving image, rather than the singular self-portrait by Alexis Piscine, that I began to make out possibilities for alternative Atlantic futures.

The Ghost of Roger Casement

Having hosted a family Christmas, I spent the following week buried in a present from my son – The Dream of the Celt by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Llosa won the Nobel prize for literature in 2010, the year the book was published in Spanish “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistant, revolt and defeat”- almost a perfect description of the Dream of the Celt.

Spanish Cover of El sueño del celta

The book provides an account of the life of Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish diplomat, hanged for treason at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916. Personally, I first came across Casement’s story when reading Adam Hothschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost on the atrocities in the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908, and the campaign to end them.

Hanging over the posthumous reputation of Casement for much of the twentieth century were the notorious ‘Black Diaries’, circulated by the British government after his conviction for treason. These described a series of homosexual encounters, regularly involving payment for sex, and were successful in undermining support for Casement and his appeal for clemency.

Although many have tried to show that these were forgeries, there is no clear consensus among historians, and I was struck by the way in which Llosa wove the diaries into his narrative, suggesting that the encounters described were as much a work of fantasy as an account of actual events, through which Casement found escape from the multiple contradictions in which he found himself embedded.

Roger Casement

Originally an employee of Liverpool’s Elder Dempster shipping line, Casement became British consul in Leopold’s Congo. He compiled evidence and produced a report on the reign of terror of the Congo’s Force Publique – who extracted rubber and other resources from the territory allocated to King Leopold of Belgium’s International African Association by the 1884 Berlin Conference using forced labour. Casement’s 1904 report, and the subsequent campaign of the Congo Reform Association, led the Belgian state take direct control of the colony in 1908.

But Casement’s story did not end there. In 1906 he was sent to Brazil, and he participated in a commission to investigate the enslavement of indigenous people in Putumayo by the Peruvian Amazon Company, a British registered company. The principal informants were a number of overseers from Barbados – British citizens – whose accounts became part of the report Casement published, enabling their voices to be heard at the centre of the global financial system in London.

Casement with Indigenous children in Putumayo

Knighted in 1911, Casement appears to have recognised echoes between the treatment of indigenous people in Africa and South America and the long history of Ireland, ultimately aligning himself with the cause of Irish Nationalism. The outbreak of the World War I provide an opportunity to take forward these commitments, and Casement spent time in Germany, attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to gain support of the Irish cause and recruit an Irish Brigade among prisoners of war.

On 21 April 1916, Good Friday in fact, Casement put ashore from a German U-boat at Banna Strand in the far West of Ireland, as part of his attempt to prevent the Easter rising, which he saw as doomed to failure without German support. Casement was captured at McKenna’s Fort, an ancient ring fort, and sent to London for trial.

For me, this detail of Casement’s story has always stood out – what is known as Casement’s Fort lies just over a mile from Abbeylands, the house in Ardfert where my grandfather was born. Reading his memoirs, which my father digitised during the first lockdown in 2020, my grandfather recalled being teased as a child for bathing in a hole dug in the sand at Banna Strand, because he was afraid to breast the Atlantic breakers.

Although the family identified as Irish Nationalists, my grandfather remembered the Easter Rising and Casement’s landing as ‘badly organised by political idealists and, as such, was doomed to failure’. For my grandfathers’ parents, the events of Easter 1916 were overshadowed by the death of their eldest son, aged 19, in Mesopotamia during a First World War military engagement.

Commemorative Postcard of Casement

Reading the book formed part of my own preparation for a new module on Race and Visual Culture Across Atlantic Worlds, which aims to explore parallels and connections around the Atlantic basin. Casement’s life concretely links the histories of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and I was struck that Vargas organises his narrative into three sections – The Congo, Amazonia and Ireland – while returning repeatedly to Pentonville Prison in the days before Casement’s execution in August 1916.

While neither the Congo nor Amazonia were British colonies, the operation of British corporations provided in these territories provided the pretext for Casement’s diplomatic actions. For me, what the book best illuminated was the exploitation and inhumanity that can arise from the activities of faceless bureaucratic profit-seeking global corporations.

While the Imperial world in which Casement lived is unlike our own in some ways, what was most recognisable in reading the book was the operation of the Peruvian Amazon Company. Registered in London, with Directors drawn from the great and the good, its employees nevertheless perpetrated unthinkable cruelties, essentially unseen, in another part of the world. Like any corporation, the Company’s response to the press coverage generated by Casement’s report centred on reputation management.

While the abuses Casement detailed shocked shareholders in London, Llosa’s account of Casement’s return to Putumayo makes it clear that this outrage was not enough to significantly alter the operation of vested interests in regions that lay beyond clear legal oversight.

Director of the Peruvian Rubber Company Julio Arana at a meeting in the Amazon

As the newspapers have been full of stories in recent days about the acquittal of four activists for toppling the statue of Edward Colston, Director of the Royal African Company, I have been reflecting on the history of the corporate power across the Atlantic world – much more longstanding and continuous than the relatively short-lived Imperial control of the African continent in the decades after 1884.

Like Rhodes, a Director of the British South African Company, Colston was an institutional ancestor to the people who continue to direct City of London corporations in their global operations today. If we want to understand the antipathy of the current British government to the actions of the statue-topplers, we must recognise that there is scarcely a hair’s width between current and earlier generations of City of London company directors.

The transfer of the Congo to direct control by the Belgian state was intended to rein in the excesses of corporate profit-seeking government, just as the termination of the termination of East India Company’s control of India in 1858 marked the inauguration of the High Imperial period that followed. Without the institutions of the state to oversee, regulate and mitigate corporate operations and employees, we all remain essentially at their mercy.

W.B. Yeats’ 1937 poem, The Ghost of Roger Casement asks us to consider Casement’s return in the present. In a year that celebrates a centenary of Irish independence, seven years after same-sex marriage was legalised by popular vote in the Republic, and two years after it became legal in Antrim where the Casement family hailed from, one suspects that the Ghost of Roger Casement would be pleased with his homeland in a number of ways.

But what does the ghost of Roger Casement demand in relation to the wider world? How much has political decolonisation since 1922 enabled corporate operations to escape state-imposed restrictions and oversight in large parts of the world, Ireland perhaps included? While people talk readily about decolonisation, can we even imagine a de-corporatised world?

The Ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

White Redemption Rituals Remixed?

Last week news broke that the chair of trustees at Royal Museums Greenwich had resigned, reportedly because the government blocked the reappointment of Aminul Hoque as a trustee because of his focus on “decolonisation”. RMG includes the National Maritime Museum which is the closest thing the UK has to a museum of national/imperial history, so this is no small thing.

For me, this brought back memories of the time I spent in Australia during 2003 when the government placed the National Museum of Australia under review. Arriving from a Blairite Britain on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I was struck by how polarised positions had become as a result of Australia’s ‘History Wars’ (‘black armbands’ v ‘white blindfolds’) , and just how much scrutiny this had placed on the work of museums.

Stung by his characterisation as a left wing activist by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and former New Labour politician, Dan Hicks has recently claimed that ‘Decolonising museums isn’t part of a ‘culture war‘. While much of the position Dan outlined in the piece makes sense, I’m afraid that when museum trustees are being sacked, such denials ring pretty hollow.

This is especially the case since Dan has done more than most to escalate this particular conflict, through the forceful promotion of his book, the Brutish Museums, both on Twitter and off. Dan is a fighter by nature, and I’m sure he feels on secure ground, but I fear that all the sturm und drang has turned museums and their ongoing attempts to grapple with colonial legacies into a legitimate political target. The thing about all wars, culture wars included, is that no one ever really wins, but almost everyone gets hurt.

Having worked in museums for two decades, including at the Pitt Rivers – Dan and I were the first members of staff to move into the new research centre, sharing it briefly with the builders in 2006 – I know that most people working in them are pretty liberal or left-leaning and struggle with the idea of being complicit with colonialism and its contemporary legacies. But the overwhelming desire to resolve this discomfort poses a series of traps, particularly when decolonisation is pursued primarily in terms of repatriation in an exculpatory mode.

One of the most honest and thoughtful contributions to reflect on Australia’s History wars and its impact on museums is a largely uncited paper by the Melbourne Museum curator and anthropologist Philip Batty. It is called White Redemption Rituals: Reflections on the Repatriation of Aboriginal Secret-Sacred Objects – incidentally presented at a Pitt Rivers research seminar about fifteen years ago. Batty, whose job it had been to return secret-sacred objects to indigenous communities in Central Australia as part of a government programme, found that many of those to whom repatriation was made were profoundly ambivalent about the process – a pretty low priority compared to the major social and health issues they faced. One young Aboriginal man pointedly told Batty ‘I’m glad you brought these things back, now we can sell them’.

In at least one case, the process stoked underlying tensions between competing claimants, prompting someone to memorably say that returning the particular object was ‘like lobbing a grenade into the community’. Batty’s conclusion was that the national project of repatriation could be primarily attributed to chronic moral dilemmas within white Australia and a broader desire for redemption, without much real interest or investment in the lives of the country’s Aboriginal people.

As a white South African, born into apartheid, I understand the profound discomfort that comes from being what Michael Rothberg has called an ‘implicated subject‘. But I also know that there is no quick and easy path to redemption – personal, institutional or national.

In his book, Dan suggests that it was African thinking that shattered the complacency of the Pitt Rivers museum – a 2015 #RhodesMustFall Oxford tweet described it as one of the most violent places in Oxford. But the forms of African thinking adopted in the UK museum sector have been pretty partial.

One of the major intellectual influences on the #RhodesMustFall movement was the South African Black Consciousness thinker Steve Biko, and key here is his critique of white liberalism. According to Derek Hooks, Biko identified four modes of disingenuous white anti-racism:

  1. A fetishistic preoccupation with disproving one’s racism
  2. Ostentatious forms of antiracism that function as a means of self-promotion
  3. The consolidation and extension of agency through redemptive gestures of ‘heroic white antiracism’
  4. ‘Charitable antiracism’ which positions tolerance within a model of charity, as an act of generosity that reiterates the status and role of an antiracist benefactor

Gary Younge pointed out that the reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd was ‘almost like teenagers discovering sex where everybody wants to do it very urgently and not particularly very well’. I can’t help feeling that the enthusiasm with which ‘decolonisation’ has been adopted within the museum sector over the past year regularly risks falling into many, if not all of Biko’s modes of white anti-racism.

Dan Hicks’ book has been read by some as an attack on the museum as an institution, but is ultimately premised on a project of redemption – he defines the work of restitution as ‘the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and “world culture” museum’ and suggests that he wants his book ‘to be read as a kind of defence of the unfinished project of the anthropological museum’. What is absent from this conception is any sense of how the proposed restitution responds to the needs and desires of people in Africa, who are grappling with a range of other more immediate colonial legacies, not least the continued political and economic impacts of both colonial indirect rule and extractive mineral economies.

If restitution is to be connected with decolonisation as a project, then surely it has to be twinned with a willingness to listen to other points of view, and attempt to resist the colonial tendency to control the terms of the conversation and determine its outcomes. Steve Biko suggested that ‘white liberals always knew what was good for blacks and told them so’.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, admittedly now an elite philosopher in New York, has said that he doesn’t think Africans should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen, because he wants museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when his grandfather was a young man. His suggestion is that a negotiated restitution should include not just the major objects of significance from African history, but a decent collection of art from around the world – something lost as a consequence of the sacking of Kumasi in 1874.

Achille Mbembe, who Dan quotes approvingly on Necropolitics, has suggested that in an ideal world the objects in which we recognise the best of human creativity should be granted the right of radical mobility and free circulation – unlike the mobility of Africans which is increasingly restricted by the immigration policies of fortress Europe. Indeed, Mbembe has probingly asked what the relationship is between the technologies of deportation for people from Europe and the desired return of African objects.

Mbembe has suggested that the losses caused by colonial occupation are so radical that there can ultimately be no adequate form of restitution. Instead, Africans have to learn to live with that loss and Europeans will have to learn with what their ancestors did. The first part of this process is surely learning to live with the discomfort of being implicated, without seeking immediate redemption on our own terms. The second is learning to be quiet enough to hear when people tell us what they actually want.

On Re-reading Alfred Gell’s Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps

As a result of selecting this as the main first week reading for our MA paper on the Arts of Africa, I have read this paper three times in the last two years. Every time I return to it, I find more there. Over the past twenty years, Gell has largely been associated, at least in student essays, with the reductive notion that ‘objects have agency’, largely due to the title of his posthumously published book Art and Agency (1998). But his writing is lively, complex and multi-layered – it always feels like he is trying to say about five things in any one paper – but the fresh and engaging style with which he writes always carries me along as a willing and enthusiastic reader. 

A Cambridge trained anthropologist who worked largely at LSE, Gell did his initial fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, subsequently also working in India. During his career he wrote about ritual, time and exchange, publishing books in the early 1990s on The Anthropology of Time (Gell, 1992a) and Tattooing in Polynesia (Gell, 1993). However, Alfred Gell really established himself as a key theorist on the anthropology of art during the 1990s with essays such as The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology(Gell, 1992b). Not content to limit himself to generating localised ethnographies, Gell remained wedded to an anthropological enterprise that involved developing categories and forms of analysis that were applicable across cultural contexts.

This essay, published in the very first issue of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996, may be one of the last things Gell published before his premature death in January 1997. According to its abstract, it ‘explores the basis of the distinction commonly made between works of art or art objects and ‘mere’ artefacts, which are useful but not aesthetically interesting or beautiful’ (Gell, 1996, 15). This is Gellian modesty. By substituting one letter, that description becomes much more accurate – it explodes the basis of this distinction.

Replica of a Zande hunting net, rolled and bound for transport as displayed in the exhibition Art/artifact at theCenter of African Art, New York 1988 by Mariana Castillo Deball, 2013:

The main target of the paper is an essay by Arthur Danto (1988) in the catalogue for Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition at the Centre of African Art in New York, ART/ARTIFACT. It is worth noting Gell’s generosity in calling it a masterly essay. Nevertheless, one senses that he has real problems, both with Danto’s argument and his way of making it. Danto wants to argue that the Zande hunting next exhibited by Vogel is not a work of art, suggesting that it falls outside a tradition of conceptual art embedded in a system of ideas and interpretation that has developed in the (western) art-historical tradition. Gell points out that this conception is essentially Hegelian (relying on a notion of art motivated by transhistorical Geist), but also that Danto is not consistent in wanting to retain the great works of African sculpture ‘discovered’ by the modernists in the early twentieth century, while rejecting Vogel’s net. In order to make this argument, Danto relies on a rather absurd philosophical thought experiment contrasting ‘pot people’ and ‘basket people’, who produce identical objects but invest cosmological significance in one rather than the other of these two artefacts. Had he engaged with the ethnographic literature, Gell suggests, Danto would have encountered conceptual worlds far more sophisticated and interesting than he was able imagine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst:

Mid-way through the essay, Gell shifts tack, developing a demonstration of how he would approach this problem in the form of a virtual exhibition, consisting of a series of of traps, alongside examples of contemporary art such as Damien Hirst’s shark (introduced through one of Gell’s sketches) and Duchamp’s Trebuchet, to draw out the significance and meaning from each other, demonstrating that traps can’t be straightforwardly dismissed as functional artefacts. This concentration on traps is very deliberate – they are he suggests ‘a master metaphor of deep significance’, ‘a representation of human being-in-the world’ and ‘a working model of a person’ that also embody the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

The trap for Gell represents a materialised nexus of intentionalities, and as such is an exemplary kind of art object. He suggests that every work of art works like ‘a trap or snare that impedes passage’, and that art galleries are ‘a place of capture’ set with ‘“thought-traps” which hold their victims for a time, in suspension’ (Gell, 1996, 37). Most exemplary of all is Pierre Lemonnier’s Anga eel trap -which through the eels they actually catch form images of living ancestral power ‘that actually accomplish work, actually nourish those who make them, and so achieve a goal that has always eluded our artists, waylaid as they have been by the need for realistic representation of (surface) forms’ (Gell, 1996, 34).

When you reach the conclusion, it becomes clear that Gell’s paper is not simply an exposition of Vogel’s net, a refutation of Danto’s arguments about it, or even an imaginative thought exhibition, but is fundamentally an argument against ‘the continuing hold of the “aesthetic” notion of artworks over the anthropological mind’ (Gell, 1996, 35). Gell suggests that this ‘reactionary… middle brow’ definition of art has ‘little or noting to do with the kinds of objects (installation, performances) that are characteristically circulated as ‘art’ in the late 20th century’ (Gell, 1996, 35). For Gell , ‘the “anthropology of art” ought to be about… the provision of a critical context that would enfranchise “artefacts” and allow for their circulation as artworks, displaying them as embodiments or residues of complex intentionalities’ (1996, 37). 

It would be wonderful to be able to report that in the decade and a half since I used Gell’s argument about artworks as traps as the basis of a pitch for my first curatorial job at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, that this project of artifactual enfranchisement had been successfully accomplished. There have definitely been plenty of examples of art museums incorporating and displaying collections of artefacts previously known as ‘ethnography’. But the thought that keeps arising when I reflect on this, is that museums and art galleries are themselves massive traps, capable of capturing and redirecting curatorial intentionalities along their own complex webs of ancestral intentionality. If the Anga eel trap is an image of ancestral eel power that actually accomplishes work, is the museum or gallery not an even more powerful living image of institutionalised ancestral power?


DANTO, A. 1988. Artifact and Art. ART/ARTIFACT: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York: Center for African Art and Prestel Verlag.

GELL, A. 1992a. The anthropology of time : cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford, Berg.

GELL, A. 1992b. The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology. In: COOTE, J. & SHELTON, A. (eds.) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 15-38.

GELL, A. 1998. Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press.Art

On Doing Decolonial Education

I’ve recently been writing an essay for my MA in Higher Education Practice at UEA, and since it relates to a series of ongoing conversations, have decided to make it available here:

#RhodesMustFall Protesters at UCT. From The africanisation and decolonisation of higher education: Progress and challenges by Veli Mbele:

The #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015 found its focus in the call for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its commanding place on the campus at the University of Cape Town (Kamanzi, 2015). As statues continue to fall around the globe, it is increasingly clear that this movement provided the spark that ignited a global wave of youth activism. I have written elsewhere about decolonial iconoclasm, what I want to consider here is another demand made by the movement – for ‘free, quality decolonial education’ (Gegana, 2016). Taking down statues is, relatively speaking, the easy bit. As student calls for ‘decolonisation’ echo around University campuses across the world, including at UEA where the Faculty of Arts and Humanities has recently launched a ‘Decolonising working party’ in response, initial meetings of which I have attended, how can we, as academics and educators, respond to these increasingly urgent student demands?

In the first instance, I feel like I need to provide an account of some of the ways in which my life has been implicated with these issues. Born in apartheid South Africa during the late 1970s, the early years of my life were shaped by travelling between Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and Soweto where my mother worked at a school for disabled children. When P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, my parents felt that the country was on a path towards all out civil war, and with three white male children, they faced the prospect of enduring compulsory conscription of their children for a total of six years, into an army increasingly deployed within the country of which they were citizens. In 1986 my parents made the decision to leave the land where they had both been born, and applied for Irish citizenship, on the basis that my paternal grandfather, my only non-South African grandparent, had been born in County Kerry, a decade before the Easter rising.

Experiencing most of my education in England, like many immigrants from the former British Empire, I was struck by Britain’s lack of recognition for its Imperial past. I had to use opportunities outside the formal curriculum to discover accounts of the world in which I recognised myself and my family history. A school project on the Anglo-Boer war, in which three of my four great-grandfathers were combatants, was supplemented by reading novels by Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Alan Paton, and listening to the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lucky Dube. I remember watching the Free Nelson Mandela concert live on TV in 1988, Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, going to hear him speak at Trafalgar Square in 1996, as well as earnestly reading Long Walk to Freedom from cover to cover.

Studying Archaeology and Anthropology at university was a way for me, finally, to put Africa at the centre of my education. But the 1990s were a time when Anthropology especially, was grappling with its colonial history, and encountering Johannes Fabian’s (1983) Time and the Other, alongside work by George Marcus and James Clifford (1986), made it increasingly uncomfortable to pursue anthropological fieldwork in the manner expected by some who taught me. Despite completing a research masters, I backed away from a doctorate in Anthropology at Oxford. Finding myself recruited for a PhD in Canberra, at the height of Australia’s (Taylor, 2016) culture wars around Aboriginal history, reinforced my sense that I in particular, and perhaps Anthropology in general, couldn’t assume a right to intrude on people’s lives in other parts of the world in the name of research. What encounters with Aboriginal people in both Arnhem Land and Melbourne taught me was that their personal and family histories, like my own, had been deeply impacted by colonial histories, and in particular by missionary institutions through which the Australian government administered Aboriginal groups.

Back in the UK, I applied for and was appointed to a curatorship at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Responsible for non-European collections, I discovered the material counterpart to the colonial, and particular missionary pasts I had learned about in Australia and Botswana – items presented by returning missionaries. This provided the spark for a part-time PhD on the museum of the London Missionary Society, which I undertook while working for a time on a research project on Englishness and English collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My overwhelming sense at the time, was that Salman Rushdie (1988) hit the nail squarely on the head when he had Mr S.S. ‘Whisky’ Sisodia’s stutter that ‘The trouble with the English is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do-do- don’t know what it means.’

My own experience of secondary education was deeply colonial in all sorts of ways, in large part through the exclusion of British colonial history. Since then, the school curriculum has increasingly been framed around an island story (Flett, 2013), dominated by encounters with despotic continental leaders, from the Pope to Napoleon and Hitler. It not only excludes the colonial pasts my ancestors were engaged in, from South Africa to India, North America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, but includes next to nothing about pasts involving my Irish ancestors, or indeed about the other languages, Welsh and Gallic, that are indigenous to the island in question.

In contrast to the school curriculum, some have argued that by placing non-European lives at the centre of their concerns, Anthropology and Archaeology can be regarded as counter-hegemonic, even decolonising disciplines. But what this fails to recognise are the multiple ways in which as disciplines they were framed, and continue to be framed by the colonial worlds in which they have taken shape (Pels, 2018). One of the points that the ‘Born Frees’, the generation of students born after the fall of apartheid in 1994 most active in #RhodesMustFall, were keen to make was that neither apartheid nor colonialism are really over. The implication is that we need to grapple with the ways in which they continue to shape not only our lives, but also our modes of education and thinking.

Beyond Decolonising the Curriculum

Decolonise T-shirts. From Is decolonizing the new black? A collaboration among Left of Brown, Sisters of Resistance and Jenny Rodriguez:

One fairly straightforward response that is increasingly installed as an operational answer to this demand is to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. In practice, what this frequently comes to mean is the diversification of reading lists, with the inclusion of more non- European voices and authors of colour, alongside potentially the inclusion of a few more non-Europe focused optional papers (Muldoon, 2019). While most reading lists could do with refreshing and the structure of degrees should be reframed in less Eurocentric terms, it seems unlikely that this approach alone will be sufficient in meeting the demand for ‘free,quality decolonial education’ (Feris, 2017), even if it does fulfil Fanon’s (1967, 27) definition of decolonisation in a straightforward sense, ‘as quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.’

One issue that arises is the precise verb form used in relation to decolonisation. Is it important to be ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, to have a ‘decolonised’ curriculum, or to have a ‘decolonial’ curriculum? In some quarters there is definitely an impatience around the project of decolonisation, which manifests as a demand for a past-tense decolonised curriculum (Swain, 2019), but this potentially risks a superficial or hurried approach that potentially fails to recognise the magnitude of the task. ‘Decolonising’ on the other hand adopts the present participle to place the focus on the process itself, whether pursued through faculty working groups, student-led projects or administratively driven projects. There is a risk of a slip into the gerund, so that ‘decolonising’ becomes an activity to pursue in its own right, the fashionableness of which has prompted some (Rodriguez, 2018) to ask whether Decolonising has become the new black, at least in academic circles. But, I want to suggest that ‘free, quality decolonial education’, a slogan of the #FeesMustFall movement that followed #RhodesMustFall, means something slightly different – that education itself should become decolonial, and this, I think, is a more ambitious, if perhaps less obvious goal.

A. Khaym Ahmed (2017, 8) who completed at PhD on #RhodesMustFall at Columbia has suggested that the movement found its theoretical inspirations in Steve Biko’s (1978) ideas of black consciousness, Frantz Fanon’s (1967) decolonisation thesis and Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectionality theory, and framed the struggle as a resistance to the dehumanisation of black people, which they argued was ‘a violence extracted only against black people by a system that privileges whiteness’. However, in the call for ‘decolonial’ education specifically, I think it is also possible to detect the influence of the Argentine scholar, Walter Mignolo, who with other Americanists has been central to developing ideas around ‘decoloniality’ in recent decadesMignolo has been a key reference point for Nick Shepherd, who until recently was based at the Centre for African Studies at UCT, so it is not hard to see how these ideas would find their way into South African student thinking.

Mignolo has been keen to draw a distinction between ‘decolonisation’ as a political state-level project, ‘Decoloniality’ as an epistemic project, and the more familiar theories associated with ’Postcolonialism’, suggesting that:

Briefly stated: post-colonialism and decoloniality have the history of Western colonialism in common. But while post-colonialism is based on the Indian and Palestinian experiences, they both are consequences of the enlightenment in 18th century Europe. While for us, the historical experiences are the colonization of America and the European Renaissance. That is what concerns the historical differences between the ‘post-’ and the ‘de-’.

Conceptually, the ‘post’ keeps you trapped in unipolar time conceptions. As far as for Western (since the Renaissance) cosmology “time” is one, singular and universal, you have no way out: you are trapped in a universal time that is owned by a particular civilization. Therefore, what comes after X has to be conceptualized as post-X. Decoloniality instead opens up to the multiple times of cultures and civilizations upon which Western Civilization imposes its conceptualization of time.

The ‘de-’indicates above all the need and the goal of the re-: epistemic reconstitutions, re-emergence, resurgence, re-existence. That is, neither new nor post.

(Hoffman, 2017)

Postcolonial education, then, would acknowledge and recognise colonial histories and the ways in which they have shaped contemporary conditions and systems of thought, without proposing any means of escape. But decolonial education would seek to challenge and unpick the assumptions and frameworks upon which colonial forms of knowledge have been built, primarily through re-introducing alternative perspectives, suppressed through the ‘coloniality of power’. This concept was developed by Anibal Quijano (2000) to describe forms of racial, political and social hierarchy and discrimination that have outlived formal colonialism, but which are nevertheless constitutive of modernity and the capitalist world system. Indeed, Mignolo (2011) has suggested that coloniality can be understood as the darker side of modernity, relying on a logic of extraction and accumulation by dispossession. Race emerges from this conceptualisation as a naturalisation of the colonial relations between Europeans and non-Europeans, assigning knowledge production to Europeans, while disqualifying other forms of knowledge through recategorising them as ‘tradition’. For Mignolo (2007), decolonial praxis involves delinking from dominant and universalizing Western epistemologies that centre narratives of European modernity, civilisation or development, through acts of epistemic disobedience. These should ideally attempt to conceive and create institutional organisations that are at the service of life, rather than putting people at the service of institutions (Mignolo and Walsh, 2018, 127).

Doing Education ‘Otherwise’

For Mignolo (2018, 113), decoloniality is not a concept or theory that can be readily assimilated into existing disciplinary conversations , but is rather a practice of ‘thinking and doing otherwise’. What would it mean, then, to think or do education ‘otherwise’? For #FeesMustFall protesters, it was clear that neoliberal models of marketised higher education were marked by an inherent coloniality – mining them and their future lives to support and sustain Universities as institutions. As a member of the very last cohort of students to receive a fee free higher education in the UK, I am intensely conscious of the ways in which the introduction of ever higher student fees has transformed student experiences of education. But doing education ‘otherwise’ doesn’t simply involve removing fees.

My thinking about how to do education ‘otherwise’ has been significantly shaped by two short books, one by the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, published in 2018, Anthropology and/as Education and the other published by the Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Ingold’s book developed from a series of lectures given in honour of John Dewey, so engages explicitly with the educational ideas of the American pragmatist philosopher, without citing Freire directly. Freire’s book also emerges out of dialogue, but in his case with Frantz Fanon’s argument in the Wretched of the Earth on the centrality of violence to decolonial liberation. A number of scholars have drawn attention to commonalities between Freire and Dewey’s ideas, as I propose with those of Ingold.

Freire criticises what he calls the “banking” concept of education, where students are understood as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, while Ingold attacks the widespread assumption that education is about the transmission of information. Ingold argues that instead, education is a practice of attending to the world, while Freire suggests that it involves cultivating a critical consciousness to reflect on reality. Ingold (2018, 4) draws on Dewey to develop a notion of education as ‘commoning’, a mutual participation in each others’s varied lives through attending to a mutual environment, in which senior and junior parties share a stake in the outcome – the absence of which marks training, rather than education. Education, Ingold (2018, 17) suggests ‘is what allows us humans to collectively make ourselves, each in his or her way’ – a process of human becoming.

For Freire, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is also marked by communication through dialogue, even dialectic, as a means of overcoming the dehumanisation that results from violence in both the oppressed and their oppressors. He suggests that:

Dehumanisation, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.

(Freire, 2017 [1970], 18)

For Freire (2017 [1970], 18), education can be a practice of liberation and freedom, but he suggests that the ‘great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed’ is to liberate themselves as well as their oppressors, since only the power that springs from weakness is strong enough to free both. Attempts to ’soften’ their power by the oppressor manifest as paternalism, a form of false generosity, which perpetuates injustice, since according to Freire, freedom is acquired by conquest, rather than by gift, and must be pursued constantly and responsibly. In contrast to Fanon’s ideas about the liberating effects of violence, Freire (2017 [1970], 30) suggests that it only an act of love can oppose the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence, and while now not unchallenged, I think one can see the impact of Freire’s ideas on Mandela’s approach to reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.

Freire might agree with Fanon that decolonisation consists of the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’, but in his case he wants to achieve this through transformation of both oppressors and oppressed into new kinds of person, since the immediate model of humanity for many of the oppressed remains becoming like their oppressors. Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed as a form of decolonial education attempts to overcome the dialectical contradiction between oppressors and oppressed through the humanisation of all.

While oriented in different directions, both Ingold and Freire agree that education is not something we do ‘to’ other people, but, as a process of ‘humanisation’ or ‘human becoming’, is something we do ’with’ them – in the process turning othering into what Ingold (2018, 66) calls ‘togethering’. This proceeds through response-ability and paying close attention to our shared world, and in Freire’s case to the nature of forms of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which can be transformed through praxis; reflection and action upon the world.

The inherent danger for those of us located in Universities is the trap outlined by Freire, where awareness of the conditions of oppression, and our ongoing participation in them, leads to rationalisaion of guilt through paternalistic treatment that maintains the dependence of the oppressed. Decolonial education is clearly not something we can do ‘to’ others, but is something we must do ‘with’ them – paying attention together to the conditions of coloniality and oppression in our world, being prepared to be personally transformed by the process, and as a consequence working towards a world that enhances human flourishing – affirming life, growth and movement.

Both Ingold and Freire make a distinction between two types of education. For Freire (2017 [1970], 28) it is between systemic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects carried out with the oppressed. For Ingold (2018, 37), the distinction is between education in the major key, the education of the school which immunises and provides security through knowledge, and education in the minor key, a practice of disarmament, enabling us to break out of the security of our defensive positions in the pursuit of wisdom. It is this latter form, Ingold suggests, that fulfils the etymological meaning of education as ex-ducere – leading out. Anxious, unsettling and inquisitive, education in the minor key is an act of care, a gift, that nevertheless exposes us all to significant risk.

While Ingold’s book in part emerges as a reaction to and critique of the contemporary University – following the campaign at Aberdeen ‘Reclaiming our University’ in which he played a prominent part – it is striking that the book finds its focus in a final chapter on ‘Anthropology, Art and the University’. Ingold (2018, 58) argues for Anthropology (but also Art) as a form of Education, defined as ‘a generous, open-ended, comparative and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life in the one world we all inhabit.’ What is striking, however, is that he suggests that this is true whether considering anthropology in the classroom or in the field – both involve close attention to the world in co-respondence with others. 

Personally, I have grappled with doing research in Africa in the wake of challenges such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012 [1999]) Decolonizing Methodologies, which suggested that ‘from the vantage point of the colonised… the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’. But recognising time spent with others in Africa as a significant element in my decolonial education has felt transformative. Over the past five years, as the consequences of #RhodesMustFall have unfolded globally, I have been involved in setting up what Freire might call an educational project – Recollecting the Missionary Road – with colleagues at Sol Plaatje University, established in 2014 in South Africa’s Northern Cape.

Through field schools at the Moffat Mission in Kuruman, a London Missionary Society station established in independent African territory in 1824, and subsequently colonised, we have been attending together, to the landscape as a means of understanding how the processes of oppression involved in coloniality transformed coloniser and the colonised alike. The conditions of a temporarily constituted field school, like the transient Bogwera and Bogale initiation schools, have been ideal ‘other’ places in which to pursue education in the minor key – attending together to the circumstances under which South Africa was simultaneously racialised and tribalised through missionary, colonial and apartheid projects.

The challenge ahead for decolonial education, as I see it, involves translating experiments in decolonial education onto University campuses in both South Africa and the UK. Will it be possible to do decolonial education ‘otherwise’ in the more formal and hierarchical institutional settings of the institution?


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Care is Not Enough: Moving Museums Beyond Humiliation

Bristol’s Benin Bronze

In the week since the Edward Colston fell into Bristol harbour, and statues of confederates and even Christopher Columbus have come down across the Atlantic, many people across the UK museums sector have been struck by a feeling that they are probably next. When the British Museum tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter movement, they were met with over 1000 hostile responses drawing attention to unresolved cases of restitution and repatriation relating to the museum’s collections.

My former colleague Dan Hicks (who was the first to respond on Twitter) has drawn attention to the fact that the Colston statue was erected in 1895, a moment in Britain’s history when an intensification of military violence underpinned imperial expansion in Africa, marked by a quest for exploitable natural resources, and underpinned by an ideology of white supremacy.

Echoing Sethembile Msezane’s performance of Chapungu at the fall of Rhodes in Cape Town in 2015, which alluded to the ongoing presence in Cape Town of a stone bird belonging to Rhodes, that was stolen from the hilltop enclosure at Great Zimbabwe in 1889, Dan connected Colston’s statue to the ongoing display in Bristol Museum of a Bronze sculpture looted from Benin City in 1897.

Dan ends his ArtReview article by suggesting that:

As the parallel demands of the Fallism and Restitution movements grow, it is the duty of Britain’s arts and heritage sector to no longer care for and protect objects more than we care for and protect people.

The reorientation of museum ethics around the notion of care, with humans prioritised over objects, has arguably been under way for some time. It is important, but on its own may not provide a way out of the impasse around restitution in which many museums find themselves.

I was prompted by reading Dan’s article to get out a piece of writing I have been working on over the last couple of years, and which has only been tried out so far at a couple of conferences, since it speaks to current concerns.

#BlackLivesMatter and Benevolent Paternalism

Medallion produced around 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood and Sons for the Society for the Abolition of Slavery:

As someone who has studied the history of British missionary engagements with Africa over the past two centuries, I am painfully aware that the current moment is not the first time that liberal and radical people in Britain have publicly committed themselves to Black lives. In the nineteenth century, it was more often Black souls than Black lives, but there is a long history of British expressions of sympathy of this kind, with roots in the antislavery movement.

Many of these movements, however, were deeply rooted in a model of benevolent paternalism that remained deeply racist – it was ‘our’ duty to do something to help ‘them’. Africa was frequently imagined as a destitute women, or orphaned child in need of charity. But charity elevates the giver over the receiver, creating an obligation not only to receive the gift that is offered, but to appear to be grateful.

It is critical that the British museum and heritage sector finds a way to approach restitution and repatriation that avoids framing this as a form of charity or benevolent paternalism. ‘We’ have inherited a problem, and need the help of African partners. ‘They’ can help us, and we can try to find ways of helping them in return, but this exchange must be framed around the notion of mutual aid rather than as charity. Anything less risks perpetuating the ongoing humiliation of Africa and Africans, which arguably reached something of a zenith in 1897.

Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, after his death in battle, 1897.

1897: Depictions of Humiliation

In the section that follows, I apologise for any offence or upset that results from my use of these images. They are powerful and shocking, but my intention is not to contribute to any ongoing sense of humiliation, but rather to highlight the underlying dignity of those who were depicted in this way. These images are freely available on the internet, and form part of the way in which we continue to see these important African leaders.

Mbuya Nehanda, spiritual leader of Zimbabwe’s first Chimurenga, following her capture in 1897

On 30th July 1897, Kgosi Luka Jantjie, leader of the Batlhaping, a Tswana group in South Africa, was killed in battle with colonial troops. In the hours after the battle, his body was propped up for a photograph. This, while somewhat unusual in featuring a corpse, forms part of a genre. In Zimbabwe, during the same year, the captured rebel leader of the first Chimurenga, Mbuya Nehanda was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African military troops, as well as a European in riding boots, prior to her execution.

The Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen, following his capture by British forces, 1897

Following his capture and removal from Benin City in Nigeria during the same year, Oba Ovonramwen was photographed, shackled and flanked by barefoot African troops. The inclusion of African military personnel was perhaps intended to suggest the emergence of new forms of African modernity in contrast to these representatives of resistant African tradition, but it may also have owed something to contemporary photographic conventions which owed as much to hunting as to conquest.

In his book on Dark Trophies, Simon Harrison has convincingly argued that nineteenth century colonial wars with non-European peoples were frequently conceptualised in terms of hunting expeditions, and that this enabled European soldiers to engage in trophy taking practices that included the removal of body parts, and particularly heads – a fate that ultimately befell both Luka Jantjie and Mbuya Nehanda, as well as quite a few other African leaders who faced down expanding imperial armies, from at least the 1820s onwards in southern Africa.

The taking of trophies continues to form a part of the performances of assertive masculinity that are associated with big game hunting, as demonstrated in these photographs of Donald Trump junior and his brother Eric on safari in Zimbabwe in 2012. But the trophy taking associated with colonial conquest was not confined to the body parts of victims, and photographs of soldiers standing with looted objects from the royal palace in Benin City clearly have a great deal in common the staging of photographs intended to display the spoils of the hunt.

British Officers pose with loot following the sacking of the Royal Palace, Benin City Nigeria, 1897

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the forms of trophy display associated with hunting lodges and military messes came to be a feature of many museum displays during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, including, as I have suggested elsewhere, at the Museum of the London Missionary Society, where the remains of hunted animals were displayed alongside ‘trophies of the gospel’ given up by converts to Christianity.

Museum of the London Missionary Society, from the London Illustrated News, 20 May 1843.

Humiliation and Injustice

Luka Jantjie, drawn from a photograph of him visiting his people at the diamond mines in Kimberley

What is perhaps also unusual about the fate of Luka Jantjie is that he was a literate Christian, educated at a mission school, and a successful businessman in the context of South Africa’s diamond mining boom of the 1870s. Kevin Shillington, who has written Jantjie’s biography, suggested that what white settlers in South Africa found most offensive about Jantjie was his determined dignity, and his expectation that he would be treated with respect as an educated Christian man who was also the hereditary leader of a significant local kingdom. Jantjie’s refusal to bow to colonial demands for subservience generated a determination among local whites to “teach him a lesson”, which manifested in his post-mortem treatment – both the photography and the removal of body parts as trophies. This violent treatment forcefully denied, in death, the dignity and respect Jantjie had assumed in life.

The deliberate humiliation of Jantjie, the man, was followed by the humiliation of his followers, whose land was taken, while men, women and children were force marched to the nearest railway station, where they were sold into indentured labour on the farms of the Cape colony. Humiliation has been defined in the psychological literature as the deliberate exercise of power that serves to demonstrate the inequality between those with power and those without, involving the stripping of status, forms of rejection or exclusion, unpredictability or arbitrariness and is experienced by those on the receiving end as extreme injustice. 

As the three examples above, from the same year in different parts of Africa, suggest, humiliation formed a fairly routine dimension of the military implementation of conquest, particularly where episodes of resistance created a desire to teach local leaders “a lesson”. Simon Harrison has suggested that a belief that they were fighting a less civilized enemy manifested in the taking of human body parts as dark trophies – something that did not happen as frequently during conflicts with other European armies. The case of Luka Jantjie suggests that it may also have been a way for colonial troops to assert the essential difference in status between themselves and their black enemies, even, and perhaps especially, when their opponents behaved in ways that suggested they believed themselves to be equal, or even superior to the standard run of white colonists in South Africa.

The Cross of Humiliation

In his 1979 Reith Lectures on the African Condition, Ali Mazrui gave one lecture the title ‘The Cross of Humiliation’. Mazrui argued that ‘Africans are not necessarily the most brutalised of peoples, but they are almost certainly the most humiliated in modern history’. He suggested that this condition arose from three interrelated systems of humiliation – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the European colonisation of Africa, and continuing racial discrimination, wherever black people live with white people. One feature of the final system, he suggested, was the insidious uncertainty people like him experienced about whether the treatment they received was the result of racial discrimination or not – manifesting through incidents that might be described in the language of contemporary activists as micro-aggressions. 

As institutions with roots in high imperialism, when the European colonisation of Africa reached its maximum extent, is it even possible for contemporary museums to transcend the frameworks of humiliation from which they derived a great deal of their institutional logics? Is it possible for museums to generate displays that are not experienced by Africans and people of African-descent as ongoing micro-humiliations, suggesting arbitrariness, exclusion, and the denial of status? In short, is it possible to move beyond humiliation – as a feature of the colonial encounter – but also a resurgent feature of various forms of social and political engagement in the present? Or are Africans and their descendants condemned to continue to have to bear the cross of humiliation, identified by Mazrui forty years ago.

Psychologists are increasingly recognising that the consequences of humiliation are far from trivial, on both an individual and societal level. Significantly, experiencing humiliation frequently leads to the loss of trust in the world. Victims of humiliating acts frequently experience feelings of resentment, rage, a sense of powerlessness, but also in some cases an understandable desire to retaliate and inflict humiliation in revenge. There are undoubtedly deep evolutionary roots to these feelings, as well as to practices of humiliation themselves, and primatologists have described similar forms of behaviour in non-human primates, particularly in relation to the establishment of hierarchy and power by males.  

Throughout history, episodes of national humiliation have prompted assertive nationalistic movements in response. While it is recognised that the perceived humiliation of Germany at the Treaty of Versailles led to the subsequent rise of National Socialism during the 1920s and 30s, it is less widely acknowledged that it was the humiliation of the Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), that seeded a drive for national self-assertion that found its ultimate focus in South Africa’s apartheid state after 1948. An article by Matt Schiavenza in the Atlantic in October 2013 argued that the deliberate humiliation wrought on China by the sacking of the summer palace by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860 was central to the founding mythology of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Indeed, the period between 1840 and 1949 is still referred to in China as the Century of Humiliation and the narrative of national humiliation is still recalled by contemporary political leaders such as Xi Jinping. Without particularly wishing to comment on the controversial political situation in Israel/Palestine, it is perhaps instructive that an article in the Israel News in November 2018 had the headline ‘Zionism is about Letting Jews Live (and die) Without Humiliation’.

In his 2017 book, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra has attempted to trace the roots of contemporary forms of violence and political anger, taking in the motivations of Islamic as well as white supremacist terrorists, through the political torments of the twentieth century, right back to the contradictions inherent in forms of individual and political identity ushered in by the enlightenment. He has suggested that to make sense of this history, and of its contemporary consequences, it is necessary to focus on the fears, drives and resentments experienced in human lives, and the unstable relationship between inner and public selves. Indeed, he has argued that many of the forms of politics with which he is concerned arise from the actions and aspirations of frustrated and humiliated young men:

Then as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines. 

Mishra’s book is fundamentally about tracing the history of the:

existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

Although Mishra’s book does not dwell on the political circumstances of contemporary Africa, he does describe the ways in which the European conquest of Africa during the 1890s formed part of a response to political pressures at home – an attempt to provide an outlet for the anger of assertive but frustrated young men. Mishra argues that:

the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteenth century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century, is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations

The glorification of violence and militarism that characterised movements such as Futurism in the early twentieth century was accompanied by a contempt for museums, libraries and academies, a position potentially echoed by the fictional character of Eric Killmonger in the 2018 marvel movie, Black Panther. His character and storyline embody a fantasy of violent revenge in the face of the micro-humiliations inflicted by the institution, its security guards and white curator, and the forceful repatriation of artefacts looted by British forces from the royal palace of Benin in 1897.

New Zealand artist Jason Hall’s 2006 work ‘The do-it-yourself repatriation kit

Although there is suspicion that some of the thefts from European museums of Chinese material that originated in Beijing’s summer palace may have been condoned and even unofficially orchestrated by the Chinese government, in many cases repatriation remains a revenge fantasy, as recognised by Teju Adisa-Farrar in her opinion piece in the Guardian from April 2018. If, as she argued, the continued holding of African material by European and American museums is inherently violent and neo-colonial, is restitution the only way of moving museums beyond humiliation? This is certainly the implication of the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which tends to shift towards a presumption of return. But on what political basis should this project of restitution proceed?

Dialogue and its shortcomings

I would like to briefly consider the events that arose in Cambridge following a student vote at Jesus College to repatriate a bronze cockerel, Okukor, which had adorned the college dining room for nearly 100 years (a fuller account, written with my former colleague Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp is available). The cockerel was a gift to the College, whose heraldic emblem is also a cockerel, but its ongoing display functioned as a trophy, complete with bronze plaque describing the details of its removal from the ancient city of Benin in Latin.

When the decision of the college’s fellows to remove the cockerel from display prompted a series of opinion pieces in national newspapers, the University panicked, and rapidly convened a Benin Working Group, including representatives from University Museums, some meetings of which I was invited to attend. The major proposal made by this group was to host a meeting of the Benin Dialogue Group, at that stage largely defunct, which would include representatives of the royal palace in Benin City, the National Council of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, as well as various other European Museums.

The Benin Dialogue Group at Trinity College, April 2017

This took place at Trinity College in April 2017. Alongside fairy nebulous proposals for capacity building and digital sharing initiatives, the declared intention of the meeting was to reopen dialogue around the issue of repatriation. However, no representatives of Jesus College attended the meeting, and members of University Museum staff, such as myself, were explicitly told that they should not discuss the potential repatriation of the Jesus College cockerel, even though it was obvious to everyone at the meeting that it was the reason why the meeting was taking place at all.

One might draw some pretty cynical conclusions about what the meeting was intended to achieve, at least from the perspective of Jesus College, but I don’t actually believe that all those who participated in the discussions can be accused of acting in bad faith. Instead, I want to suggest the organisation of this meeting was driven by an optimistic commitment to dialogue as a form of political engagement. Indeed, it has been argued that commitment to dialogue is a key characteristic of the liberal rational mood, which arose following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. As Pankaj Mishra puts it:

Over the last two decades, elites, even in many formerly socialist countries, came to uphold an ideal of cosmopolitan liberalism: the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire, and Kant.

Nevertheless, a commitment to rational forms of engagement, such as dialogue, fails to recognise the important part that human emotions and passions play in political actions and orientations, tacitly assuming that consensus can be arrived at through dialogue and compromise. 

Care and Justice

In her classic feminist work on Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan identified two different ways of thinking and talking about moral problems, characterising them as an ethics of justice and an ethics of care. While she argued that the majority of psychological and philosophical literature by male authors had concentrated on moral development towards an ethics of universal justice, this failed to recognise the ways in which an ethics of care was a recurrent feature of women’s moral development.

She connected these modes of ethics with the different ways in which men and women are often socialised, linking these to modes of play in children. Boys, she suggested, often play games with complex rules, such as football, where interactions frequently involve lengthy disputation around the interpretation of the rules, but adherence to the rules and maintenance of the game is valued above all else. Girls, on the other hand, often play in ways that prioritise the maintenance of relationships, and will abandon games when tensions arise.

I would argue that in parallel with a shift towards dialogue and assumptions of liberal consensus, museum ethics, at least in the ethnographic museums with which I am most familiar, have shifted over the period since Gilligan published her book, perhaps in line with the shifting demographics of the curatorial profession, towards prioritising an ethics of care over an ethics of justice. The principle of avoiding violence, and prioritising the establishment and maintenance of relationships has become the standard curatorial orthodoxy.

What an exclusive focus on dialogue, relationships, and an ethics of care fails to recognise is that many forms of political contestation and conflict are driven by potentially irreconcilable interests. As we are increasingly aware in the UK, political disagreement is an inevitable feature of human life, which can’t always be resolved simply through discussion. Indeed, the assertion that rational self-interest should enable people to see that they are in fact wrong in their views has led in the case of Brexit to amplified forms of antagonism, and a corresponding desire to humiliate one’s opponents, particularly online (and I would suggest particularly on Twitter).

The political and emotional drive to repatriate material in the face of ongoing humiliations will not ultimately be resolved through the compromise of online access and long-term loans that was arrived at by participants in the Benin Dialogue Group meeting, even if this offers a tangible and achievable first step. By retaining control of the debate, and the ultimate power to make the decisions, the University of Cambridge, delivered another micro-humiliation to Nigerian participants in the dialogue, who were expected to agree that acting rationally would entail being grateful for the offer to build their capacity for rational museum practice – something not lost on student activists, who responded angrily to the outcome of the meeting in the student press.

Transformative Thinking?

Pankaj Mishra’s book accomplishes a remarkable dissection of the anatomy of our contemporary predicament and its apocalyptic mood. He suggests that underlying this global political situation is a world in which: 

Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.

What is the scope then for attempting to talk about these things without falling into the same traps, established by the liberal assumptions of many of us engaged in the conversation. Mishra is unclear about the prescription necessary to shape a future that does not involve more cycles of violence, humiliation and reprisal. The final sentence of the book suggests the need for some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world. But what should that involve?

One person who has attempted to think about different ways of doing politics is the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who suggested that the belief in the possibility of a universal rational consensus has put democratic thinking on the wrong track. Like Mishra, Mouffe is concerned about the liberal political discourse that accompanied the managerial politics that arose in the 90s, but has argued that this has created a moralistic tendency, whereby political antagonisms are increasingly played out in a moral register, whereby the struggle between ‘right and left’ has been reframed in terms of ‘right and wrong’.

For Mouffe, who derives her understanding of ‘the Political’ from Carl Schmitt, a German critic of liberalism, all forms of identity are relational and derive from a constitutive other. Every ‘we’ requires a ‘they’, and this carries within it a tendency towards antagonism, but for this not to fall into a friend/enemy relation some form of common bond must exist between the parties in conflict – a ‘taming’ of the relation which Mouffe has called agonism. The difference between antagonism and agonism is the difference between warfare and sport, or between violence and the rules of a parliamentary system designed to prevent the deterioration of conflict into violence.

Mouffe suggests that instead of trying to design the institutions which, through supposedly ‘impartial’ procedure, would reconcile all conflicting interests and values, the task for democratic theorists and politicians should be to envisage the creation of a vibrant ‘agonistic’ public sphere of contestation where different hegemonic political projects can be confronted. She argues that when channels are not available through which conflicts can take an ‘agonistic’ form, they tend to emerge in the antagonistic mode, so that instead of being regarded as a political confrontation between ‘adversaries’, they are framed as a moral confrontation between ‘good and evil’. The consequence is that the adversary is regarded as an enemy to be destroyed and humiliated – and this inherent tendency is, as Mishra points out, embodied both in the terrifying acts of terrorists, but also the interactions of Twitter mobs and trolls. 

In returning to museums, it is probably important to suggest that the optimistic liberal ideals of celebratory multiculturalism which accompanied the social inclusion agenda of the New Labour government after 1997 have had their day, as yet another example of British benevolent paternalism. A true commitment to pluralism recognises that the variety of positions occupied by participants in society, shaped by a range of historical inheritances, inevitably embody a range of conflicting interests, but also political identifications and passions.

The challenge, in attempting to move beyond humiliation, is whether museums, as essentially liberal institutions, described by Mouffe as linked to the construction of bourgeois hegemony, can find ways of channeling, taming and presenting these conflicts in an agonistic way, so that a common bond is retained between adversaries, rather than moralising them or suggesting that they can be resolved through rational consensus. In the context of museum collections derived from military violence and acts of humiliation, is it possible to ‘tame’ former antagonistic relations so that former enemy ‘theys’ come to be regarded as integral to an expanded ‘we’.

The inherent danger, is that this proceeds in a paternalistic manner, whereby those in charge of institutions – like it or not, generally members of the liberal elite – attempt to retain control of the terms of argument and the debate (with the inherent assumption that ‘we’ are right, rational, and beyond having interests of our own). This is certainly a direction taken by some contributions to the debate around reparations, and will continue as long as ‘we’ attempt to remain the primary arbiters of repatriation decisions involving ‘them’.

An important dimension of the Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron was the suggestion that decision making should be removed from the hands of museums and their trustees, and provided an institutional structure that embodied a ‘we’ that included representatives from both sides of the friend/enemy conflict that operated during the colonial period. Moving ‘beyond humiliation’ to forge a common future entails being able to imagine a ‘we’ which is not immune to disagreement or conflict, but which is nevertheless committed to the development of common forms of decision making as a means of resolving these.

For Gilligan, ultimately it was the integration of the ethics of justice and the ethics of care that marked the achievement of maturity in moral thinking in both men and women, and would, she argued, lead to a more generative view of human life. The reparation debate cannot then be resolved simply by an emphasis on care and relationships, important though these are, but must also start to think about justice – developing a set of procedures for adjudicating repatriation/reparation cases – the rules for the game – which will be recognised as just and fair by all sides.

I want to suggest that the challenge now facing museums is that of integrating an ethics of justice with an ethics of care, through the careful design of an approach to arbitration that avoids perpetuating the humiliations rooted in violent colonial encounters. It is important that museum directors, as well as their boards of trustees, recognise that while they may have good arguments for, or against, repatriation in particular cases, that they are far from impartial commentators, regardless of where they come from or the colour of their skin. Achieving a form of justice that will ultimately be respected by all sides involves situating decisions about repatriation and reparation within agonistic structures that are independent of museums or the institutions of which they form part.

Now that is a challenge to the Institute of Art and Law, appointed by Arts Council England in March to produce new guidance on restitution and repatriation for museums…

Echoes of #RhodesMustFall

Seeing images showing the statue to Edward Colston torn down and thrown into Bristol Harbour this afternoon prompted a strange sense of recognition. Clips of what appears to be a sort of reverse-lynching recalled images of the confederate statue torn down in Durham, North Carolina after the Charlottesville attacks in August 2017, and before that the statue to Saddam Hussein torn down by US forces in Iraq in 2003.

Bristol’s Colston toppling forms part of what Cynthia Kros has called an archive of iconoclastic images. This is by no means the first time that iconoclasm has formed part of political action in Britain. Art Under Attack, an exhibition at the Tate in 2013, explored histories of British iconoclasm, with a concentration on Puritan iconoclasm of the seventeenth century when statues associated with royal power, such as the Cheapside Cross in London, became the focus of destruction.

However, what I would call ‘decolonizing iconoclasm’ has really picked up in the years since 2015 when the #RhodesMustFall movement unfolded at the University of Cape Town. As well as confederate statues in the USA, statues of Captain Cook have been the focus of attacks in Australia and New Zealand.

Until now, protests about statues of slave traders and colonialists in the UK have focused on campaigns to get the relevant authorities to remove them, as ultimately happened in Cape Town. Events in Bristol today suggest a shift towards something slightly different.

Just over a week ago, I submitted the manuscript for a book on South African art, the introduction of which takes the #RhodesMustFall campaign UCT as its starting point. In 2015, it was Eric Garner’s cries of ‘I can’t breathe’ which echoed across the Atlantic, but the underlying issues of structural racism were the same.

Although the book won’t be published for a few months, I wanted to share part of the introduction, since I think it sketches some of the background around #RhodesMustFall, but also demonstrates, I hope, that in that case, Rhodes’ fall provided an opportunity to think about what sort of alternatives might take its place:

Introducing the Pasts and Presence of Art in South Africa

Chris Wingfield1, John Giblin2 & Rachel King3

  • 1 Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, University of East Anglia, formerly University of Cambridge
  • 2 National Museum of Scotland, formerly British Museum
  • 3 University College London, formerly University of Cambridge

On 9 March 2015, Chumani Maxwele, a fourth-year political science student, arrived at the upper campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) – halfway up the mountain that overlooks the city, built on a parcel of land bequeathed to the nation of South Africa by Cecil John Rhodes. Maxwele had travelled from the apartheid-era township of Khayelitsha by minibus taxi, the main form of transport for the majority of the population, carrying with him a portaloo cartridge full of faeces.  Bare chested, but wearing a pink hard hat and cardboard sign around his neck stating “Exhibit @ White Arrogance U.C.T.”, Maxwell blew a whistle and began throwing shit at the seated statue of Rhodes, who had overseen the main pedestrian approach onto the campus for the previous half century. The press photographer he invited along captured Maxwele’s protest, magnifying its impact through the global circulatory possibilities of social and digital media. 

In the weeks that followed, Maxwele’s actions reverberated around the world, initiating the #RhodesMustFall movement and prompting the largest student protests in South Africa since the end of apartheid. The movement has subsequently inspired further protests and acts of decolonial iconoclasm in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, and 55 years to the month after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which a protest against South Africa’s infamous pass laws resulted in the police killing 69 people and injuring 180 others (including 29 children), all of whom were unarmed, South African student activism once again took centre stage in conversations about decolonisation unfolding around the globe.

An enormous amount has already been written about #RhodesMustFall and its consequences and we do not attempt to summarise nor cite what is becoming a substantial literature. What we intend to highlight here, however, are the ways in which Maxwele’s iconoclasm, as a political, symbolic and performative act, located art at the centre of forms of political contestation in contemporary South Africa. As the hashtag #RhodesMustFall transmuted into #FeesMustFall, and inspired subsequent hashtags such as #ZumaMustFall, what became most clear about ‘fallist’ movements was that they found their focus in negation. The anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, in attempting to theorise the relationship between hegemony, ideology and cultural practice, as it relates to tensions experienced between official rhetoric and mundane practice, suggested in their major 1991 work, Of Revelation and Revolution, that:

The premises of racial and sexual inequality are no longer acceptable, at least in the official rhetoric of most modern states – although, in the world of mundane practice, the battle to control key signs and ostensibly neutral values rages on. Even when there is no well-formed opposing ideology, no clearly articulated collective consciousness among subordinate populations, such struggles may still occur. But they are liable to be heard in the genre of negation – refusal, reversal, the smashing of idols and icons – and not in the narrative voice of political argument.                                                                      

(Comaroff & Comaroff 1991, 27)

Iconoclasm is undoubtedly a violent act, directed towards art, artefacts and objects rather than human bodies, but can this violence nevertheless serve a creative purpose? Are acts of decolonising iconoclasm, such as Maxwele’s, simply acts of negation – outbursts and expressions of violence that result from a daily experience of structural contradictions that come to feel unbearable – or can we also understand them as simultaneously creative artistic performances through which the possibilities of alternative futures can be glimpsed? Can acts of protest and negation make things visible that are far harder to express in what the Comaroffs’ call ‘the narrative voice of political argument’? Is this not at least part of the social function of art, and can we pursue Alfred Gell’s (1998, 84) insight that iconoclasm is a form of ‘art-making in reverse’? Does this at least partly explain Bruno Latour’s (2005, 17) observation that iconoclasm frequently strikes ‘sideways’ with ancillary (and often creative) effects? According to David Freedberg, the iconoclastic act is so frightening because: 

It opens realms of power and fear that we may sense but cannot quite grasp. When the iconoclast reacts with violence to the image and vehemently and dramatically attempts to break its hold on him or her, then we begin to have some sense of its potential – if we do not perceive it in the flash of light that blinds us, finally to its art. 

(Freedberg 1989, 425)

Can we understand recent South African iconoclasm in the decolonising mode as a commentary on the power of the image, on creative action, and ultimately on art itself? What light does this shed on the far longer history of artistic practices in the region, and can we use the resulting insights to explore the ways in which art has played a central role in the very long history of human life in the land now called South Africa? 

The three performances related to #RhodesMustFall that we explore below, arguably exemplify three modes of art-making and unmaking that we believe can help us to better understand art’s multiple pasts in South Africa, but also point to alternative futures.

1. Protest as Performance

 During his protest, Maxwele’s was reported as saying:

There is no collective history here. Where are our heroes and ancestors? I feel suffocated by the presence of these colonial memorials at UCT. We take this protest across the country. Black students can’t breathe on campus.

(Boersema 2017, 3)

The first part of Maxwele’s statement might be read as a demand for the representation and memorialisation of heroes of South Africa’s ‘struggle’ against apartheid – most often the black men such as Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, who have been a major focus for the heritage industry in the two decades since the end of apartheid. It could be argued that the epitome of this movement can be found in the ‘National Heritage Monument Company’, established in 2011 by Dali Tambo, media personality and son of the ANC politician Oliver Tambo, which has set about creating a series of up to 400 bronze sculptures of individuals from South African history representing ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’.2 But the second half of Maxwele’s statement suggests something slightly different. Jacob Boersema (2017) has pointed out that ‘I can’t breathe’ emerged as a slogan of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the USA during the previous year, following the suffocation by police of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, when he can be seen on the YouTube film of the event repeatedly crying out this phrase. Black Lives Matters protesters carried placards stating ‘I can’t breathe’, as well as a quote attributed to Frantz Fanon, which read ‘When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe’ (Boersema 2017, 3).

Fanon remains the indispensable guide to the psychological impacts of colonialism as well as to the political project of decolonisation, for academics, analysts and activists alike. Indeed, his description of the colonial world as ‘A world divided into compartments, a motionless, Manichaeistic world, a world of statues: the statue of the general who carried out the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge; a world which is sure of itself, which crushes with its stones the backs flayed by whips’ (Fanon 1967, 40) is an excellent explanation of the significance of the Rhodes statue. Or at least as relevant as the cartoon by the South African political cartoonist Zapiro, which provides a graphic take on why black students find it hard to breathe around the statue.

Maxwele’s question about ‘our heroes and ancestors’ can be read in the light of Fanon’s definition of decolonisation as ‘quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men’ (Fanon 1967, 27). Fanon (1967, 30) suggested that ‘there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place’ and by extension, Maxwele’s question about ‘our heroes’ can be seen as a demand that they be set up in the place of Rhodes. Fanon’s chapter Concerning Violence in The Wretched of the Earth in many ways provides a somewhat prophetic explanation of the role of iconoclasm in the #RhodesMustFall movement:

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters…

(Fanon 1967, 31)

Furthermore, Fanon suggests that violence plays an important role in the decolonial struggle:

At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.

(Fanon 1967, 74)

But is Maxwele’s protest simply to be understood as an act of negating violence directed towards an icon of southern Africa’s violent colonial history? This particular statue of Rhodes has, after all, been a focus of protest action on a number of occasions over the previous half century (Schmahmann 2016).

 For instance, in May 2014, less than a year before Maxwele’s protest, on the eve of a student debate about the possible relocation of the statue, it was stencilled with the words ‘Remember Marikana’. This referenced the killing of striking mine workers at the Marikana mine in August 2012, which saw 34 people killed and at least 78 wounded by South African police – the greatest loss of life at the hands of the South African security forces since 1976. The mine they were protecting is owned by Lonmin, a London registered company. The words ‘Remember Marikana’ were accompanied by an iconic image of Mgcineni Noki, known as the man in the green blanket, one of the leaders of the protest who was killed at Marikana. The image was produced by Tokolos Stencils – a collective of anonymous graffiti artists in Cape Town, who claimed responsibility in a statement that declared: 

In honour of all black UCT students whose land was stolen from their ancestors and whose natural re-sources were privatised by one Cecil John Rhodes. Tokolos reminds us that colonialism and the massacre at Marikana are not only interconnected but part of a long history of dispossession, exploitation and murder of blacks (and especially poor blacks).3

It is perhaps not surprising that such a prominent statue on a University campus, to such a controversial figure, should become the regular focus of protests, but there is arguably something different about the nature of Maxwele’s protest. 

Unlike earlier anonymous acts of night-time painting,4 Maxwele’s assault on Rhodes was a performance in its own right, staged for the all-seeing eye of the internet, which juxtaposed Rhodes’s impassive metallic stare with a living, breathing, black body. The racial contrast between these bodies was also underlined by their dress, with Rhodes in his a business suit, while Maxwele’s hard hat and shirtless body referenced generations of South African miners, including his own father, alongside those killed at Marikana – forced, by the imposition of government taxes and policies that systematically removed their productive land, to become the reserve army of rural labour needed by the extractive mineral economy. As well as juxtaposing breath and death, black and white, businessman and labourer, Maxwele’s protest created a confrontation between stone and bronze and the raw matter of life – piss and shit. In describing the actions that led up to the protest, Maxwell stated that:

Kasibe… suggested that we use human excrement that runs exposed through Khayelitsha so that we could speak to the urgent need for human dignity for the black people living in shacks in Khayelitsha in inhumane conditions and indignity. Kasibe said that, by throwing poo at the statue of Rhodes, we would symbolise the filthy way in which Rhodes mistreated our people in the past. Equally, we would show disgust at the manner in which UCT, as a leading South African institution of learning, celebrates the genocidal Rhodes. In short, the poo would be an institutional appraisal of UCT.                                                                                                                                                                   

(Marback 2018, IV)

In their deployment of such polyvalent symbolism, Maxwele and Kasibe made the protest fundamentally about the treatment of black people in the present, building on a recent history of ‘poo protests’ in the Western Cape that had developed in response to the lack of provision of basic infrastructure (Robins 2014). Pictures of state built unenclosed community toilets in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, circulated during local elections in 2011. The subsequent provision of portable toilets, which people had to use within their one room shacks, overlooked by their families, occasioned further protests in 2013, particularly when employees of the company responsible for collecting the waste went on strike. Two ANC Youth League councillors tipped the waste from one of these portable loos down the steps of the Provincial Legislature in Cape Town in June 2013 as a protest, and other protesters were arrested on their way into Cape Town carrying buckets of waste (Marback 2018, V).5 What these ‘poo protests’ attempted to do was to subvert the spatial organisation of Cape Town as a colonial city (cf. Redfield and Robins 2016). Again, Fanon suggested that:

The colonial world is a world divided into compartments…cut in two…. The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed… The settler’s town is a strongly built town, all stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage-cans swallow all the leavings, unseens, unknown and hardly thought about… The town belonging to the colonised people… is a place of ill fame… It is a world without spaciousness; men live on top of the other… The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire…’ 

(Fanon 1967, 29-30)

South Africa’s ‘poo protests’ relocate daily encounters with human waste from Fanon’s ‘native zone’ into the segregated spaces of the ‘settler’s town’. For Maxwele, this form of movement underlined the experiences of a growing number of UCT students, who themselves had to cross the dividing lines between these zones on a daily basis, only to be welcomed onto campus by the seated and suited immortal body of Cecil John Rhodes (see also Nyamnjoh 2016). A radio interview given by Maxwele the day after his protest suggests that he was keenly aware of the possibility that his protest might be perceived simply as an act of violence, and of the dangers in the way the media might frame this:

We knew that the moment we do anything that is violent, or damaging the statue, we will be deemed with the stereotype of Black violence. We sat down and thought through this thing and—because of our lived experiences—we knew that we had to use our psychological pain, our trauma, that the statue gives to us as Black students and Black staff. I am deeply traumatized by that statue. We thought: lets take the pain of our parents, the pain of our brothers and sisters in Khayelitsha, who will be using pota-potty toilets for the rest of their lives. That is my pain. Let me take that pota-potty with feces back to where it belongs. So that the powerful people—the elite—can feel how it feels to be Black.

(Boersema 2017, 4)

Through its juxtapositions and redeployments, Maxwele’s protest was a creative bricolage intended to highlight Black pain, in the expectation of an empathetic response. White arrogance, as he understood it, emerged from what he described as ‘white norms, white standards and white attitudes’. Taking down the statue would be a first step in displacing whiteness and the white experience as the assumed basis for institutional values at UCT. 

The response to Maxwele’s protest swiftly picked up on issues of institutional racism that extended beyond the statue itself. Kgotsi Chikane, son of a former anti-apartheid and ANC politician, called an open-air campus meeting on Facebook to develop a ‘Plan of Action in order to change the institutional racism within this campus’ (Boersema 2017, 10). Hundreds of students came together on 12 March 2015, and following the meeting, the Student Representatives Council covered the Rhodes state with a red blanket and a sheet and released a statement. However, it was Jerome September who tweeted a photograph of the students gathering on 12 March which he tagged with the hashtag #Rhodesmustfall, initiating the hash tag that came to define the movement (Boersema 2017, 11).

Alongside rapidly unfolding conversations and consciousness raising activities, daily student-led protests at the statue developed an increasing focus on institutional racism. On 16 March the protesting students covered the Rhodes statue in black sheet plastic – another expression of negation – demanding a date for the removal of the statue from University management. On 20 March, the movement organised its largest protest yet, involving a coalition of students, staff, workers, union leaders and political representatives. Maxwele was invited to address the meeting, and his words are significant: 

Amandla! On Monday, when I protested, my institution, UCT, thought I was a barbaric, a lunatic, who does not know what to do. But today you are answering that message. Our message is a cry of AC Jordan. It is a cry of Mafeje. It is the cry of Mamdani. It is a Black cry. It is a cry of the workers. It is a cry of the staff.

(Boersema 2017, 13)

Maxwele’s references were to black former members of academic staff who had suffered discrimination, silencing and ultimately exile from South Africa, in part at the hands of the university.6 When Max Price, the University’s Vice Chancellor attempted to address the protesters, his microphone was switched off and protesters stormed and occupied the University’s administrative building, which they renamed Azania House.7On 27 March 2015, the UCT senate voted in favour of the removal of the statue, and the statue was boarded up pending the final decision of the university’s council. On 9 April 2015, it was removed.

2. Re-staging ‘The Fall’

The Fall is a play, written and produced by UCT drama students to document their experiences of the #RhodesMustFall movement, which was staged at UCT’s Baxter Theatre and later toured to the Edinburgh festival and the Royal Court Theatre in London. Like Maxwele’s protest it is a performance, but differs in attempting to narrate the varying, and sometimes conflicting, experiences and perspectives of a group of UCT students through imaginative recollection and scripting. Cayha (The Light), one of these characters, reflected on the impact the original protest action had, stating:

Chumani, the comrade that threw pota-pota on the statue was almost at a loss for words about how shit it is for blacks at this university. Throwing some pooh on that statue was one-hundred-percent articulate. It is amazing, really, how everyone got lit over some pota-pota on a statue, but there was some very hard work around transformation long before he did that.                                              

(The Fall 2017, 16)

This recognises the power that Maxwele’s original protest carried, as what Richard Marback (2018) has called ‘An Embodied Rhetorical Assertion’, but also the ways in which this built on an unfolding conversation on the campus. However, what ‘The Fall’ captures most powerfully is the feeling that many students had that they were participating in a movement that represented a turning point in history. Kgothatso (The One Who Discovers), one of the other characters states that:

On our way to Upper [Campus] I swear I could feel the bones of our ancestors moving with us, supporting us in our first step of decolonisation.

(The Fall 2017, 32)

Chwaita (The Young One), expresses it another way:

When Rhodes fell, the world stopped. History was suspended in the air and continued to wash over us, like a salty healing wave… I heard the slaves who hadn’t arrived and the singing on the Mendi. I heard the cameras buzz. I heard Eric Garner across the Atlantic. The taunts of the people around me, reprimands at the excited crowd – we’re foaming at the mouth! I heard the noose pull. The tree branch snap.

(The Fall 2017, 34)

Boitshoko (The One Who Perseveres) describes the moment when the crane lifted the statue and everything slowed down:

Rhodes was suspended in the air and he swung a few inches above the plinth… like he wasn’t sure if he could get off, or not. It looked like his ghost was fighting back, trying to make him topple over and crush our black bodies one more time. But he was gone… He was finally gone… I felt as if our land had just heaved a giant sigh of relief; a space to breathe at last. As the statue landed on the flatbed truck, I saw the look of arrogance on his face. So I jumped on that truck and gave him six lashings with my belt.

(The Fall 2017, 33)

The un-making of the Rhodes statue at UCT provided a cathartic focus for the desired un-making of South Africa’s racial and political order. But the image of the young black student lashing Rhodes with his belt was picked up by the media and featured in many newspaper accounts of the event. As the play re-stages events, this became the moment that incipient tensions in the student movement began to fracture. The issues of gender and sexuality had been simmering throughout the occupation and now that the statue was gone, those tensions began to boil over, with radical feminists and trans-activists asking the men to account for their patriarchal behaviour – delivering a beating with one’s belt is associated in South Africa with the imposition of male violence and discipline in domestic settings:

CHWAITA (The Young One): What you guys did was to definitely derail our narrative! By jumping on that plinth, you gave the media this big photo op! We know the media do that. They’re not going to focus on these little statements we made as women. The media is only interested in the dramatic picture, so when you jumped on the plinth, you immediately elevated yourselves. Now, ding! This picture is all over social media, all over the news, looking like you are the leaders of this movement.

CAMILLA (The One Who Searches): And on top of that, cadre, you should’ve heard what those European journalists were saying about you. You know, the minute he pulled out his belt and started hitting Cecil in the face, they called him a savage.

(The Fall 2017, 35-36)

It is clear that violence, manifesting as what characters in The Fall describe as hyper-masculinity – Africa striking back in the face of centuries of humiliation, emasculation and infantilization – is one of the ways in which the protests may be understood, and is indeed one of the possible futures made visible by the protest actions, performances and re-stagings of the movement – but it is not the only one.

Qhawekazi (The Brave One), another of the characters in The Fall voices another perspective:

I remember looking at the place where the statue had been and I noticed a tiny hole filled with ash and burnt paper. I remember thinking, ‘We have to fill that space with us.’ Things, shapes, people we can recognise. Now the real work of decolonising starts… I remember someone yelling, ‘We must replace it with a statue of Tata Nelson Mandela,’ and I thought, ‘No … we have enough of those, we have enough statues of men. We have enough men.’

 (The Fall 2017, 34)

3. Chapungu

Standing further back in the crowd, on her own plinth, was Sethembile Msezane, a UCT Masters of Fine Art candidate from Soweto. Numerous smart phones and cameras were trained on the Rhodes statue, but Msezane faced away, her face covered by a beaded veil, waiting, and watching the action in the reflections of other people’s sunglasses. At the moment the crane lifted the statue of Rhodes, Msezane raised her arms, gaining wings – a veritable African phoenix, rising from the fall of Rhodes. 

Msezane’s performance was complex and multi-layered. Like Maxwele’s original protest it juxtaposed her own black living and breathing body with the bronze embodiment of Rhodes. However, its female form added a further juxtaposition, as did her outfit. In Msezane’s Public Holiday series, performed during 2013 and 2014 before the advent of #RhodesMustFall, Msezane had also stood on a plinth in various locations to underline the absence of the memorialization of black female bodies in public spaces. Just as her choice of outfit on each of these occasions connected to the public holiday in question, what she wore on 9 April 2015 was highly deliberate.

In 1889, the hunter Willie Posselt forced his way into the hilltop enclosure at Great Zimbabwe, where he found a series of carved stone birds positioned around an altar. He set about hacking the best specimen from its stone plinth, much to the consternation of local people, who were held back at gunpoint (Hubbard 2009, 110). Posselt sold the bird to Rhodes, and some think this may have at least partly inspired the invasion of the country by Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1891. Rhodes adopted the bird as a personal emblem, incorporating it as an architectural element in his various houses, in Cape Town, as well as the gatehouse of the estate he purchased outside Newmarket in the UK. It remains a significant feature of Rhodes’ House in Oxford to this day.

The bird most likely represented Chapungu, the bateleur eagle, which is regarded as a mediator with the ancestors in Zimbabwe. Following independence in 1980, when the country previously known as Southern Rhodesia took the name of the ancient site, Zimbabwe, the bird became a feature on the new national flag and coat of arms, also appearing on coins and notes. In 1981 the South African government returned four of the birds, removed in excavations sponsored by Rhodes’ British South African Company, and in 2003 the Ethnological Museum in Berlin returned the pedestal of another (Munjeri 2009). The bird that belonged to Rhodes, however, remains in the library at Groote Schuur, his house slightly further down the mountain from the UCT campus, which until 1994 was the South African presidential residence, and is now a museum.

Sethembile Msezane’s embodiment of Chapungu had been prompted by a recurring dream, and her more recent work Falling (2017) attempts to explore the perspective of the bird that remains in exile, and the view expressed by some Zimbabweans that there will continue to be unrest in the country until the final bird is returned. It is significant that Msezane’s work connected the removal of the Rhodes statue so explicitly to the collecting and potential return of ancient African works of art, given the connections this makes between iconoclasm, collecting and the consignment of objects into museums (cf. Wingfield 2016), but also the links it makes between iconoclasm and repatriation (cf. Wingfield 2010). A number of commentators on the Rhodes statue itself stated that it had become an anachronism that belonged in a museum, rather than a University campus, and as Cynthia Kros (2015) has pointed out, the fate of the Rhodes statue at UCT was ultimately not destruction, but indefinite preservation. Msezane’s refocussing of attention away from Rhodes and onto Chapungu makes the case for the importance of a reverse move that would provide precolonial African art with a contemporary presence and significance. Indeed, much of Msezane’s work draws attention to the different ways in which the past can be manifested in the present. When she was interviewed by Douglas Foster for the Atlantic, Msezane recalled her experience standing on the plinth when she tried to meditate on the deeper meaning of the historic moment:

How arrogant, she thought, to install monuments to powerful individuals across such a beautiful landscape in the first place. Permanent installations, even of heroes, eventually inflicted ‘the kind of pain’ associated with the Rhodes Statue… Their presence only encouraged a culture of narcissistic, bankrupt triumphalism. ‘I don’t really understand why we should have any of them,’ she mused. ‘Why do we ever litter a landscape like that?’

 (Foster 2015 )

In a subsequent TED talk, Msezane has argued that ‘The preservation and the act of remembering can be achieved in more memorable and effective ways.’8

Decolonisation as Art Practice

These three examples of artistic performances, each closely connected with #RhodesMustFall, provide alternative visions of the movement, but also alternative perspectives on art-making and un-making in South Africa. Maxwele’s protest, for all its thoughtfulness, represents decolonial action in the mode of Fanon, the liberatory moment of violence, arising from unbearable contradictions, but leading perhaps to ‘quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’ (Fanon 1967, 27). “The Fall” represents performance as re-enactment, but a re-enactment which clarifies and attempts to work through the complexities and multiple perspectives lost in the heat of political action. Sethembile Msezane’s work Chapungu-The Day Rhodes Fell looks forward to alternative futures made possible by decolonial action, futures which explicitly connect to the precolonial African past, and to modes of thought and practice that have been largely displaced and marginalised by the colonial ordering of knowledge. Each of these performances, in their different ways re-present both the past and the present, and in doing so make it possible to re-imagine alternative futures (cf. Hamilton 2017).

In his essay ‘What is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars’, originally published to accompany the 2005 exhibition Iconoclash, Bruno Latour (2010) asked, ‘How is it possible to go beyond the cycle of fascination, repulsion, destruction, and atonement, which is generated by the forbidden-image worship?’ His answer, at least partly, was through embracing ‘cascades of images’. ‘By writing about images, objects, statues, signs and documents in a way that demonstrates the connections they have with other images, objects, statues, signs and documents’, Latour (2010, 91) suggested that the argument can be made that ‘Images do count… because they allow one to move to another image, exactly as frail and modest as the former one, but different’.

Through a concentration on the origins of the #RhodesMustFall movement, we have tried to indicate the ways that it embodied much of Latour’s vision. Intervening in the vision of history embodied by the Rhodes statue, it was as much about art-making as art-unmaking – about intervening in the cascade of images in a way that paralleled the interventions of cartoonists such as the political satirist Zapiro.9 Indeed, the critic and curator Thuli Gamedze argued in December 2015 for ‘Decolonization as Art Practice’, suggesting that ‘MustFallness is an ideology… speaking to decolonisation… as a way to make space for new ideas, and new ways of being’ but also as ‘an art discipline… of creative and risky thinking, and a discipline of mobilisation and activism, based on a desire to see new images, and to create new symbols’ (Gamedze 2015). However, Gamedze (2015) suggests that it is an approach ‘that has little to do with the art institution, with the implication that ‘we are forced to deal with art outside of the institution, and to engage with images that actually affect us all.’ Gamedze (2015) suggests that it is necessary to de-specialize creativity so that we can play with it more consciously as a political tool’, asking:

If we seek to truly understand art as a discipline with the potential to engage all and every subject matter, then will this kind of conscious image-engagement destroy the white cube, a colonial construction that segregates ‘art knowledge’, and dilutes its potential to catalyze and mobilize real change? #FineArtMustFall?

Gamedze argues that we can expand art to the extent that when we talk about art, we are speaking of a conscious, creative approach that is in response to images, and through response, creates its own images. In a time when the majority of images are consumed online and through social media, when so many people carry smart phones in their pockets, the making and circulation of images, including images of un-making, has arguably already been radically de-specialised.10 Are our contemporary circumstances genuinely novel, or do they rather reflect the de-segregated and de-specialized way in which art and image making have operated for the majority of human history, at least in South Africa?


1. The conference was held between the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge and the British Museum, between 27th and 29th October 2016. It was supported financially by a major conference grant from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, as well as additional financial support from the Centre of African Studies and the Smuts Memorial Fund at the University of Cambridge.

2. These sculptures are ultimately intended to form part of a visitor park targeted on Heritage tourism, in a complex that will also include Africa’s largest water park. See:

3. See:

4. In the late 1970s, it had been painted pink by a group of students in protest at what they saw as UCT’s wasteful expenditure on their 150th anniversary celebration. One of the protesters said they had directed their protest at the statue of Rhodes as this was representative of “what U.C.T. has done and is still doing, namely facilitating the exploitation of the majority of South Africans.” Whether pink, served simply to parody, or to signify Rhodes’ alleged homosexuality either in 1970 or as the colour of Maxwele’s helmet, is unclear. In 2008, graffiti appeared on the plinth which read ‘Fuck your dream of Empire’. This referenced a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Song of Cities’ relating to Cape Town inscribed on the plinth which read:




5. It is undoubtedly significant that the Western Cape, and Cape Town in particular, is not dominated by the ANC in the way that other parts of the country are. Since 2009, the Democratic Alliance has maintained a majority in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

6. Archibald Campbell Mzolisa “A.C.” Jordan (1906-1968) was a novelist, literary historian and pioneer of African linguistics, who was appointed senior lecturer in African languages at the University of Cape Town in 1946. In 1961 when he was offered a Carnegie bursary to conduct research in the United States, but was refused a passport by the apartheid government. He was forced to leave South Africa on an exit permit, and settled in America where he was appointed professor in African Languages and Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2015 the University of Cape Town renamed the Arts Block after Jordan. 

Archibald ‘Archie’ Mafeje (1936 – 2007) was a South African anthropologist who was appointed Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at UCT in 1968, but the appointment was reversed a month later because of pressure from the apartheid government, prompting a nine day student occupation on campus involving an estimated 600 students.

Mahmood Mamdani (1946 – ) is a Ugandan academic who was appointed the inaugural AC Jordan chair of African Studies at UCT in 1996. He left UCT in 1998 following disagreements with the administration on his draft syllabus of a foundation course on African called ‘Problematizing Africa’, which led to his suspension from teaching (see

7. Max Price was Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town from 2008 to 2018. A qualified medical doctor, as a student Price was President of the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand from 1976 to 1978, and was arrested and detained in solitary confinement for 12 days by apartheid police for organising commemorations to mark the first anniversary of the Soweto Uprising.

8. See:

9. Zapiro’s cartoons provide a complex visual commentary on South African politics and history, and also featured in the South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition at the British Museum in the section on anti-apartheid protest art.

10. The poet Koleka Putuma, in her poem ‘Dear Allen’, performed on the day that Rhodes fell, and posted to the #RhodesMustFall Facebook group the following day (available at, put it another way:

They drew spears in jest.

Sort to reclaim bourgeois galleries as a space to display lost and defamed lineage

And in the meantime, they were redeeming the meaning of freedom

They wrote poems for a living and called it art

Made art and called it a living

They romanticised about making Theatre

That reflected who they thought they were


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A number of our students have expressed concerns that our institutional Twitter account has not yet publicly made a statement supporting the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd. With silence equated to violence by activist slogans, there is real concern about external perception of this seeming sin of omission.

As far as I am aware, we have no social media policy or strategy, and the fact that there is a Twitter account at all, comes from a vague sense that we probably ought to. Some colleagues are keen that we extend our social media presence in various ways, while others appear entirely disengaged. How should we respond? How important is it that a position is taken?

I could say that I have little faith that a tweet from a departmental twitter account with less than 500 followers, at a provincial British university, will make any material difference to the deep structural racism that continually impacts on the lives of Black people on all sides of the Atlantic.

But is it more important to be sure that the institution is not perceived as silent, and therefore complicit. Renni Eddo-Lodge’s dissection of British attitudes to race in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race highlighted the almost pathological need of many White British people to declare that they are not racist, while at the same time readily participating in systems of privilege and prejudice that are underpinned by racial distinctions. Would tweeting about George Floyd’s death be the digital equivalent?

I definitely don’t want to suggest tweeting in this way would be a straightforward exercise in ‘virtue-signalling’. Simon Kuper, son of the eminent Anthropologist Adam Kuper, pointed out in a recent article that this term is basically an insult, used to side-step a substantive point. I have no doubt that many people who make statements of this kind on Twitter have deep personal commitments to these issues, which they feel the need to express.

But is tweeting the best way to take a position? Kuper begins his piece by stating that the characteristic rhetorical device of our political era is the insult, and it is clear that an awful lot of the insults he goes on to describe emanate from the Twittersphere. Marking student essays that evaluate museum displays in recent years, I have been struck that more balanced critique has increasingly been displaced by straightforward condemnation, and my suggestions that a stronger position might be formed by considering the other side of the argument – what ancient rhetoric called Dissoi Logoi – are largely ignored as an irrelevant curiosity.

Kuper suggests that the intention of the online insult is not to persuade, but to frighten opponents into silence – and perhaps to frighten everyone else into expressing agreement. There is no space on Twitter for shades of grey, for complexity or for much in the way of subtlety. But isn’t plumbing the murky complexities that swirl around the truth precisely what Universities should aspire to? Should we be spending our limited time and resources tweeting with the choir, or should we be trying to think through, around and behind the surface phenomena of our increasingly conflicted and complicated world.

The other issue of concern was that no response had been made yet. George Floyd died less than two weeks ago, but in the age of the internet this can feel like an aeon. For many of us who spend our time working on books and articles that take years or even decades to produce, it has passed in the blink of an eye. I am still trying to work out what I think. Do the protests play into the electoral strategy of Trump’s team, strengthening identification by ‘the base’? Might the protests even create the conditions of disorder needed to declare a state of emergency and suspend the upcoming elections? But Twitter demands immediacy – you need to be on trend, on time and quick to respond, or there really is no point.

Listening to David Runciman’s recent podcast on Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the week, as the protests around Floyd’s death unfolded, I was struck that the America he visited in 1831 was marked by many of the same features it is today. Established around the original sin of slavery, with a puritan and conformist approach to morality, it is the epicentre for a proliferation of raucous published opinion. De Tocqueville observed that there was scarcely a hamlet in America without a newspaper, but in the twenty-first century this drive to publication has been individualised. There is scarcely an individual without a social media account.

And of course, America is a country governed by a presidential Twitter account. De Tocqueville worried about the seeds of despotism that lay in the soil of America’s new democracy, and it does not seem a stretch to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the flowering of a particularly insidious weed. I have to admit that my approach to Twitter, and my lack of substantial engagement with the platform, has been substantially shaped by reading Naomi Klein’s book ‘No is Not Enough’ in 2017.

Klein argues that we can’t just say no to Trump, but urgently need to cultivate the space to dream and plan for a better world. She ends by suggesting that each of us also need to work on defeating our inner Trump – that part of ourselves that has fractured our attention span into 140 characters, confuses “followers” with friends, and understands ourselves and our institutions as brands that need to be on message.

In other words, we can’t resist the tweeter-in-chief by tweeting back. Should an institutional account tweet support for Black Lives Matters protesters? Why not. But we shouldn’t think this even begins to rebuild the world in ways that will make Black Lives Matter more.

This blog post is my response to student concerns. Long and pretty tentative – it resists the imperatives of Twitter, claiming the space and time needed for thought.

Back to the blog

The COVID lockdown does strange things to people. In my case, it has allowed me to work down my to-do list towards the line that says Blog!

Started when I was teaching part-time for the Open University, between writing a PhD and visiting museums with a new baby in tow, it inevitably dropped off the list over the past decade.

This has seen me move first, to a full-time and full-on job as a curator at the Museum of Archaeology in Cambridge, and then to my current post at the Sainsbury Research Unit at UEA.

I have written quite a bit in that time, but sadly most of it has been in email form, and the rest has been focused on research publications, with the aim of getting an academic job, passing probation and getting promoted.

With those hurdles jumped, and with children who are older and less time consuming, I want to resurrect the blog as a way of writing in a slightly more immediate and reflective mode.

So here we go…