By Caroline Petersen
This article can also be found in the print Edition 2 of VARSITY Newspaper.
Willie Bester’s statue of Sara Baartman standing in the Oppenheimer Library at UCT, was robed from April 2016 and remained so until December 2017, when the garments and robes were removed from the body of Sara Baartman by American librarian, William Daniels, who no longer works for UCT. With much uproar from students and staff alike, the Works of Art Committee (WOAC) hosted a public discussion on Tuesday, the 20th of March, in UCT’s Molly Blackburn Hall to discuss the future of the statue and hear students’ voices, along with the sculptor himself.
In April 2016, a march was held from Bremner to Upper Campus to commemorate the Rhodes Must Fall movement. In the process, one of the stops was to visit the Sara Baartman sculpture in the Oppenheimer Library wherein eight womxn decided to robe Sara Baartman. A spokeswomxn from the library reports that, “Sara Baartman, all her life, was stared at, and even as a work of art, was stared at again as you come up the stairs”, justifying the acts of the student protestors.
Qondiswa James, one of the initial students to robe Sara Baartman, reports that the reason they robed the sculpture was because Sara Baartman equally experienced the pain and trauma black students’ bodies felt during the experience of the Rhodes Must Fall protests during 2015. James reports that this was an alternative method to listening to the narrative of black pain – rather, through visualisation. James finds that, despite Willie Bester’s attempts at recreating a mould of Sara Baartman, “she still remained an object” to “titillate the gaze of the [white fetishes]”. James speaks into the objectification of black bodies at UCT and compares this to the life of Sara Baartman. Students who agree to robe the sculpture believe the naked sculpture keeps Sara an object of white colonial gaze and they wish to subvert this.
Willie Bester responds to Q&A’s by explaining that he wanted to display alternative images of power as opposed to the institutions in South Africa that only display white power. A guest of the public discussion spoke to this by describing Sara Baartman’s sculpture as a symbol of hope, strength, and in a position of power as the piece of art is made up of heavy metals and mechanical objects. Bester replied to James’ point of black pain by responding as follows: “my dream was to contribute to a better society… my sculpture will contribute to a place where we can overcome any pain”.
The chairperson of the public discussion and representative from the WOAC (which has been curating art for UCT since July 2017) addresses Bester’s concerns about the sculpture being removed, explaining that other works of art around UCT had to be removed purely to protect them, not censor them. The discussion concluded with the note that the WOAC will take a couple of weeks to deliberate on the discussions made and make a decision about the future of Sara Baartman’s statue. Until then, the statue remains unrobed.