Classical sculpture still has value for today's culture.

Once a member of the British Empire like New Zealand was, South Africa's visual culture has incorporated and referenced traditions from Western or European culture. During the 19th and 20th centuries classical Greek sculpture had been presented as the apogee of Western civilisation and the embodiment all the ostensible virtues of beauty, intellect, civilisation, etc that were the core construct of the Western canon. These traditions cast a long shadow even today. In these postcolonial times, what does it mean to decolonise art?

Professor Federico Freschi, Head of our College of Art, Design and Architecture, has come to Otago Polytechnic from South Africa. He was interested to discover that the University of Johannesburg had a collection of plaster casts of classical Greek sculpture which was in storage. The University’s choice not to display them was in part a form of self-censorship, based on the assumption that they no longer had artistic and cultural value for this generation of students and could even be seen as offensive symbols of colonialism. Federico decided to curate an exhibition of these sculpture casts, bringing them out of the shadows to prompt debate about what meaning classical traditions have today.

“The motivation for the exhibition, entitled ‘Recast,’ was primarily to counter the one-dimensional, knee-jerk and fundamentally unhelpful discourses that had proliferated around the debate regarding the decolonisation of the curriculum in general and art/art history in particular. I thought it would be an interesting and provocative challenge to allow an audience (and particularly students) to engage with these casts as objects in their own right and view them not as slavish proponents of Eurocentric ideals, but as focal points of multiple and contested narratives.”

Informed by a principle of ‘constructive iconoclasm’, students were invited to make collages based on their experience and interpretation of the casts, as well as to write first-hand responses to them. The results were surprising and enlightening, and overall showed a level of genuine interest and interpretive sophistication that added complexity and nuance to the debate around decolonisation.

Federico concluded that there is value in opening debate on difficult questions and allowing students to explore these in their own terms. In New Zealand as in South Africa it is important to avoid simplistic rejection of cultural contributions from colonial times. Instead we need to make our own decisions in this generation about what objects mean for us now.

Image credit: Federico Freschi, used with permission

May 2020