This edited volume by Kim Miller and Brenda Schmahmann is a welcome and crucial addition to the corpus of scholarly books about visual culture in South Africa. Even though it does not purport to be definitive concerning the appearance, role, and context of public art in South Africa, it offers a rich snapshot of the topic between the years 1999 and 2015. In this regard, it supplements the few extant sources and lays the foundation for further exploration and deliberation. The book consists of an introduction and thirteen chapters centered on four broad thematic areas by a variety of South African and international authors. Rather than attempting to do justice to each discrete chapter, I shall mainly give an overview of the central issues that emerge throughout the book.
The main thrusts of the book are delineated in the Introduction by Miller and Schmahmann, entitled “Engaging with Public Art in South Africa, 1999–2015.” They provide a useful context for the book and explain the chosen timeline as the start of the presidency of Thabo Mbeki in 1999 up to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in 2015. They also present a working definition and framework of public art as “existing in and for the public realm” (p. xxxii), which is variously refined and expanded upon in subsequent chapters. Miller and Schmahmann explain the rationale for the four thematic sections in the book; what is helpful is that they do not merely proffer a summary of each chapter, but rather present a discursive context and offer their own examples of public art that are characteristic of the given theme. They also expand on the strategies that can be used to recontextualize old monuments and other solutions that have been invoked to create alternative discourses. This touches on one of the central concerns in the book: what to do with (older) public art that has fallen out of favor in terms of ideology or audience. They discuss options such as leaving the old intact, reinventing the old, or creating new public art. At the end of the Introduction, the editors look at prior writings on public art in South Africa and explain how this book differs from previous works like History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa by Annie Coombes (2003) and Sabine Marschall's Landscape of Memory: Commemorative Monuments, Memorial and Public Statuary in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2010), for example. It is thus clear that this book seeks to fill a significant gap in the discourse on public art and frequently presents original, even ground-breaking research.
The trajectory of the book moves from “traditional” monuments and sculptural modes of commemoration to more experimental interventions in the urban landscape such as billboards and performative visual culture. Broadly speaking, this might be said to designate the shift from sites of veneration to more overt sites of resistance that reflect the changing political landscape in South Africa. The first theme in the book, “Negotiating Difficult Histories,” comprises chapters by Elizabeth Rankin, Brenda Schmahmann, and Gavin Younge. It deals with attempts by contested spaces such as the Voortrekker Monument and monuments to Afrikaner nationalism to negotiate new identities and reinvent themselves to appeal to a broader constituency. The third topic grapples with the contentious history of slavery in the Cape and the manner in which this painful history has been elided or even commodified in picturesque entertainment landscapes aimed at the tourism market.
The second theme, “Defining and Redefining Heroes,” consists of chapters by Liese van der Watt, Naomi Roux, and Gary Baines. It deals with the representation of heroism in recent public art, focusing on King Shaka, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, and Solomon Mahlangu. In these chapters, the notion of contested representations starts to emerge clearly, as does the role of audience expectations and ephemeral public art that operates in the shadows of sanctioned or commissioned visual culture.
In these essays, gender ideology starts to surface, which is taken up in the next theme, “Erasures and Ruins,” with essays by Kim Miller and Duane Jethro. Miller's chapter on the destruction or vandalism of public art that depicts heroic female figures is a welcome look at a relatively unknown chapter in South African history and touches on erasure, memory, and selective remembering. The “economy of violence” is continued in the next chapter, which critically investigates the Sunday Times Heritage Project; it theorizes various forms of decay, neglect, or ruination of commissioned artworks. It also touches on the issue of what appeals to the public/publics in a country fraught with a violent past.
The last theme, “Ephemeral Projects,” comprises chapters by Shannen Hill, Leora Farber, Karen von Veh, Kylie Thomas, and Matthew Ryan Smith. These chapters deal with more experimental works in other media “that trouble conventional understandings of ‘public art'” (p. xxv), including performative works, billboards, graffiti, ceramic art, building wraps, and photography. The notion of people producing temporary visual intercessions in the landscape appears in the work of the Black Arts Collective in Cape Town and the chapter on lesbian funerals as a form of visual activism. Mary Sibande's huge photographic images on billboards and building wraps, ceramic interventions by Julia Lovelace in Johannesburg, and graffiti interventions in Johannesburg add to this rich arena of new forms of public art.
These chapters succeed in conveying a great deal of information that will probably be new to many international readers; they do so without being theoretically dense, although, for example, race, social spatiality, identity, power, memory, Black Consciousness, affects theory, and queer politics are theorized where necessary. All in all, the book deliberates on the role of, justification for, and visuality of public art and explores the interface between sanctioned/unsanctioned interventions that attempt to resonate with different or new audiences. Audience taste and visual literacy are strands that come to the fore in a number of chapters, reminding us of the old debates regarding abstract versus naturalistic styles in service of the public. The reception of public art is shown to be subject to vandalism, ruination, dissatisfaction or even opposition—which also touches on the various forms in which public art needs to be visible and accessible to its audiences, especially if it is to serve as regeneration or to uplift the community.
The authors show how visual culture has been enlisted to endorse ideologies such as imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, apartheid, and “rainbowism,” and how the privileged narratives of one regime fall into disfavor—this signals the contentious issue of the struggle over memory/memorialization in South Africa. Various forms of mythologizing and the creation of foundation myths to legitimize successive regimes or power structures are pointed out by referring to visual iconicity and the canonization of heroes. The question of how liberation or struggle politics might be commemorated is tied to various instances of visual activism dealt with in the book. Nation building also forms a leitmotif, where it is shown that the legacy of segregation history and politics are not easily elided and that the agendas of transformation and reconciliation are sometimes at odds.
Public Art in South Africa ultimately grapples with the question whether (commemorative) public art, in its diverse manifestations, can be inclusive rather than exclusionary—an imperative agenda in South Africa, which has been characterized by divisive politics. The unveiling on July 18, 2018, in Johannesburg of the statue of Nelson Mandela by Pitika Ntuli to celebrate the centenary of Mandela's birth signals that the debates are far from over. This book alerts us to the pitfalls and potentials of public art in a stimulating and thought-provoking manner, and is highly recommended for specialist readers as well as a broader audience.