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Art as his(s)tory

Posted on March 25, 2015

Art matters. It communicates values and reflects the culture in which it is produced.

All of which helps to explain recent protests against the statue of the British mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. Students see the colonialist's statue as a symbol of white supremacy that should be removed, repudiated.

The controversy highlights a larger critique of public art in South Africa: the meager representation of women, particularly the many who played pivotal roles in the fight against apartheid, according to journalist Rebecca Davis, who wrote an essay on the topic for The Daily Maverick, an online news site in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In setting up her argument, Davis cited extensively the scholarship of Wheaton College Professor Kim Miller.

There is a Monument to the Women of South Africa at the Union Buildings in South Africa which is, to quote academic Kim Miller, “the only commemorative site dedicated entirely to women’s Apartheid-era political efforts”.

Miller, an associate professor at Wheaton College in the US, has researched this topic extensively and is about to release a book called How Did They Dare? Women’s Activism and the Work of Memory in South African Commemorative Art. The first part of the title, Miller, explains, is a quote from Walter Sisulu when he was marveling over the courage and organisational capabilities of the women who organised the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings.

A professor of art history and women's and gender studies, Miller says the dearth of women in art about the struggles "is significant given that women were not silenced or marginalized during the liberation struggle, either as political actors or within visual culture."

Her forthcoming book from the SUNY Press will explore visual representations of women political activists in South Africa both during and after the struggle against apartheid and consider the extent to which they are remembered, or forgotten, in contemporary visual culture and celebrations.

Miller also is co-editing a book on public art in South Africa from 1999 through 2014, Stone Elephants and Plastic Presidents, with colleague Brenda Schmahmann, a professor at the University of Johannesburg. The country is particularly interesting because its Truth and Reconciliation Commission chose not to dismantle public art that commemorated its colonial and apartheid history.

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