[intro]Arrests and interdicts, stun grenades and rubber bullets, have become synonymous with South African universities. In this environment, where many students have been injured and two people have died, negotiations and compromise is hard to come by. Some institutions have closed their doors, and others preach ‘business as usual’ with a heavy police presence. During a time in which students are battling to find safe spaces, a collective at Stellenbosch University called Open Forum is finding new forms of dialogue through art.[/intro]
Greer Valley, a former Stellenbosch University student with a master’s degree in fine art, was approached to curate an exhibition on student activism alongside a workshop called ‘Political Subjectivity in Times of Transformation’ hosted by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced study. The project was scheduled for October to commemorate the one year anniversary of the occupation of Admin B, the Stellenbosch University’s’ administration buildings.
Following months of consultations and brainstorming sessions, Valley and students at Stellenbosch, who come from a variety of disciplines, were clear on what they wanted to achieve with the exhibition, and more importantly, what they did not want to achieve. “We didn’t want to represent a dynamic, fluid movement in an exhibition format in a museum or gallery space and especially not for the gaze of international scholars. We didn’t want to turn this important moment into spectacle or into an object,” Valley said.
Instead, they opted for what they describe as a ‘laboratory for ideas that respond to current and past struggles in South African tertiary education institutions.’ The ongoing exhibition includes a series of interventions around Stellenbosch by visual artists, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, sculptors, performers, performance artists, spoken word artists, poets and musicians, ‘that are meant to raise questions about art’s role in shifting how and under what conditions knowledge is produced.’
Some of the artists on the month-long lineup included local filmmaker, Nadine Cloete, who was invited to screen her latest documentary, Action Kommandant.
Performance art pieces by Sami Maseko (Perspective Gained) and Cole Ndelu (Failing the pencil test/passing the pencil test) could also be viewed around campus with the intention to create dialogue, and ‘place decolonisation at the centre of our art practice.’
“The purpose of Open Forum is to provide a space to question art’s role in stimulating change. Can art be intertwined with activism and how? It’s also a space to engage and reflect on what’s happening – a space to breathe,” said Valley, and insisted that this is pertinent considering the atmosphere of violence on many university campuses, including Stellenbosch.
Spaces for black students, led by black students
“There are students at Stellenbosch University in particular who are traumatised by the violent treatment of their peers. The response to dissent in Stellenbosch is excessive, student activists are treated like criminals.”
Valley said that the fluidity and accessibility to art provided by a platform such as Open Forum provides a space for reflection and dialogue in an atmosphere that has ‘damaging consequences for the students’ mental health.’
“The kind of work that is needed to shift power imbalances and the inequalities that exist within these institutions is full time work and work which the institution itself should be doing. I hope to raise some of these questions around institutional power and decolonising what constitutes ‘knowledge’ through my artistic practice.”
“I hope that through art and film and performance we can create a space for healing, revitalisation and affirmation as that’s what’s needed now. Also in stellenbosch – spaces for black students, led by black students.”