A Cape Town photographer is unfazed by the defacing of her public exhibition on whiteness, saying it is an “expression of engagement” in a conversation which the country needs to have.
Sydelle Willow Smith’s exhibition, titled Un/Settled, opened in the Company’s Garden in the CBD last week and is formally part of the Infecting the City public arts festival, which starts on Monday.
The project started five years ago after she felt the need to redress the way that photography had been used as a tool of “othering”.
Her hope had been that, by turning the lens on the world she accessed as a white South African, people would engage and carry on a conversation that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had attempted to address.
She interviewed a diverse array of white people to show that their histories were not homogenous, but that the benefits of whiteness cut across the board, based on the country’s history.
Smith was notified on Tuesday morning that someone had rubbed human faeces all over her photo boards and written the word “fools” across them with a permanent marker.
“I don’t feel that is necessarily vandalism. I see it as an expression of engagement,” she told News24 on Wednesday.
“For me, it is an expression of unspoken anger around the lack of honest conversations about identity and race in South Africa. There has been a dangerous use of ‘Simunye [we are one], the rainbow nation myth, stronger together, rugby is going to save everything’ without looking underneath, looking at the realities of how unequal society is.”
In one of her artworks, she speaks with Shane Lukhanyo Eades, who is a sangoma in training.
He tells her: “White privilege is horrific. Even I sit here on white privilege. I work damn hard for my money, but it’s so much easier because I am white. You have an unfair starting block without a ball and chain”.
Smith said that, unlike an art gallery, there was a rawness to having her art in a public environment like the gardens, which had a huge population of people living on the street and people of different economic backgrounds.
She anticipated that people on social media would tell her to stop playing the race card.
“My feeling is you can move on and be united if you are actually willing to look in the mirror and look at yourself and confront the entitledness, from the way you speak to the shop attendant to the way you demand space,” she said.
“It’s about humbling yourself and living as South Africans. We can stop playing the race card when we have these conversations. This is meant to be a public conversation.”
With photographs documenting the defacing, Smith has paid for the exhibition to be cleaned so that people can still read the text.
Her exhibition in Government Avenue may stay up for a while after the festival ends later this month, or be moved to another location.