Most 19th Century, and even contemporary monuments in post-colonial countries such as South Africa are typically a celebration of men’s achievements in serving the empires or their nations. These monuments serve to shape collective memory in public spaces, and ensure against the failure of individual memory. Yet, we now know that our memory, far from being set in stone (or bronze), is plastic in the sense that it is constantly shaped and moulded based on our knowledge of the past. WE also know that there are multiple histories in every era, and that often these alternative histories are not represented in public space.
In 2014 the statues of Presidents MT Steyn and CR Swart, which preside over the central square of the University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein campus where the Vice-Chancellor and the University’s top management sit, were shrink-wrapped in bright, fluorescent pink. This was part of an experimental public art project commissioned by the University and the Vrystaat Art Festival.
Plastic Histories, by Australian artist of Turkish-Muslim descent Cigdem Aydemir, seeks to question the nature and meaning of these nationalist statues on the campus and others in the city of Bloemfontein. While the project alluded to the preservation of public monuments through the use of shrink-wrap, it concurrently revealed the nature of the statues contentious and gendered historical function. The ‘pink plastic presidents’ encouraged dialogue around representation of particular histories in public space while attempting to visualize alternative histories by reclaiming these public spaces to acknowledge the contribution of others, in particular, women of all races, cultures and sexual orientations, in the grand narrative of a post-apartheid South Africa.
In addition to shrink-wrapping the two statues, an augmented reality application was developed with artist Warren Armstrong, to allow audiences to engage with a number of other statues in the city. When viewed through a smart phone or tablet, the city statues would appear with a pink overlay and the voices of South African poets Kagisho Kolwane, Charmaine Mrwebi, Tessa Ndlovu and Gisela Ullyatt were heard in different languages. The statues became a base onto which other histories could be injected.
The different components of the project were integrated into the social media environment to create a visible space for alternative histories in public. A #PinkPresidents campaign was launched on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram inviting the public to post their stories or a selfie in front of a pink statue in support of diversity and human rights. Self-representation therefore became a critical aspect of the project, with people from a variety of backgrounds literally inserting themselves into this public space- and thus into the history of the statues.
Remnants of the statues remained though the shrink-wrapping, but new histories evolved the understanding of the past. Plastic Histories created a, somewhat, temporary utopia where these statues were used to empower and commemorate the unacknowledged, and rather than those simply representing past power.
The process of highlighting alternative histories did not entirely eliminate the historical context or value of the statues, or the legacies and failures of the men they represent. In fact, it served to highlight the narratives of these men and the historical moments they embody at a time when the general public is rarely aware of their stories.
However, it also allowed people to realise the manufactured nature of historical representation, while keeping an open, malleable (plastic) space where history can be re-appropriated.
“Plastic can and does change shape and colour under the hands of real human beings,” Vice-Chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen said about the project. “Here is the case for agency and activism; history is not simply given, it is made and re-made by all of us in formal settings like schools and universities but also in everyday life by what we talk about, remember and construct alongside, or in the place of, others’ sacred statues.”
The strength of Plastic Histories is that it allowed for a layered space of discord and an understanding of multiple narratives rather than a single version. The project offered a creative opportunity to consider and debate the purpose and re-purpose of these statues, and add multiple histories to sites of collective memory. Re-imagining these representations is an ongoing cultural responsibility (in all eras) – we have to create different contexts for different times.
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