Protest Art or Vandalism

During times of conflict within a nation, art work is sometimes considered to be one of the most powerful forms of communication between the government and the public. South Africa’s apartheid period bred some of South Africa’s greatest artists such as Willie Bester, Jane Alexander, Helen Mmapula Mmakgoba Sibidi and Brett Murray. Over 20 years later, this once exclusive art form has taken a new shape. Street artists and what some have considered vandals, have taken to public spaces and monuments to vent their frustrations with the lack of transformation in what most would refer to as a “Rainbow Nation”. However one must question where the line between art and vandalism is drawn.

Various political related images have recently begun to appear in public spaces, such as the Marikana man, stencil paintings of Hector Pieterson and the infamous poo protest against the statue of Cecil

#RUshutdown spray painted in front of the Rhodes University Admin Building
#RUshutdown spray painted in front of the Rhodes University Admin Building

John Rhodes at University of Cape Town (later referred to as UCT). Although these works are in public spaces, not all those who are in their presence feel comfortable. Even in spaces which are considered to be liberal, these art works become the centre of racial and socio-economic tensions. Recently in Grahamstown, street art with the hashtag “black lives matter” has been appearing around the Rhodes University campus. *Kiara Hamilton, commented that said art works made her feel as though she, as a white student, was being attacked in a manner that was making her feel as though she was no longer welcome and found it unpleasant to be surrounded by vandalism everyday.

Image of the "Marikana Man" or "the Man in the Green Blanket"
Image of the “Marikana Man” or “the Man in the Green Blanket”  

In the past, these artworks were exhibited in spaces such as museums and galleries, giving them some form of respectability among the said communities. When taking them out of this space, it becomes very difficult to make these artworks relevant as they become a nuisance to those who don’t understand their political and social value. These works which seem to be vandalism are in fact commentary on the issues affecting the community and the greater society.  However as the artists who produce the artworks, are usually not internationally or nationally recognized. They sometimes fail to make a bold enough statement in order to create a significant impact, unless they have a shock factor.

A large problem with these art works begins to emerge when the people who are being defended or spoken for, become the victims of these artworks. The previously disadvantaged black community who are often the target market for change in these art works, have to perform the undignified jobs of removing faeces, as in the case of UCT, or removing the graffiti which is sprawled on public buildings and walls. It then leaves one to question the real impact of the artworks, the works lose their power when the same people who come to the rescue of the suffering working class become the villains who increase the work load of the working class. According to Mam’ Glayds,”when some (one) fights for you, you feel special but they must know how to fight for you. I don’t want to clean up your dirt, it’s not my job but it becomes it when you do it.” In most instances this is the only change that occurs from these artworks as they do not make enough of an impact or those in power do not make the effort to acknowledge these calls for change.

Hence when one produces such artworks, it is important to question the true value of the artwork. Is it simply going to exist and later have to be removed by those who you are striving to dignify, or is it going to create a change within the community. Although this cannot be predicted when one takes the first adrenaline filled stroke of paint, failure must be considered as a possibility which may have high risk results.

*- Names have been changed to protect those involved

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