Boycotting the Republic Art Festival, celebrating Apartheid rule

By Lauryn Arnott

I was born in Zambia, Central Africa. My boarding school at Marymount College in Rhodesia, had white and black children. This exposure to black children my own age helped formulate ideas about colonial history. A schoolgirl in my sister’s class called Tsisti Dangerembga later became one of Zimbabwe’s most noted authors when her book called ‘Nervous Conditions’ was published. This book about her life at the boarding school is now used as a set workbook, on post-colonial literature for students across the world.

Aged 14 my parents moved me to South Africa. I was placed into a school to be educated to become a part of the Apartheid system. At aged 15 I saw the Soweto Riots and the death in police custody of Anti-Apartheid Activist Steve Biko. I also attended a Black Consciousness Movement meeting which was dispersed by police dogs. I spent many hours outside the headmaster’s office because I disagreed with my teachers and the wicked system.

In 1981 whilst studying for a Higher Diploma in Fine Art at Durban Technikon, my conscience was tested by the ‘Republic Festival’ exhibition in which white artists only were invited to celebrate 20 years of apartheid rule.

Despite my objection to this exhibition I was informed that the art school had hung my work anyway. I was caught in a double bind. I did not want my work and thus my voice to be heard from the platform of Apartheid. It was illegal to remove the work so I tore my print up and put it back into the frame.

I had crossed a boundary, I had stepped outside the law. It was all right for me to will freedom into my work and my thoughts, but this action had propelled me from the private in the public arena with the full attention of the media.

Eventually, I took courage and answered the telephone to speak to the police. They told me that my print had been destroyed in the Republic Festival Exhibition, but I was not to worry as they had taken fingerprints and they would find ‘the terrorist’, the culprit. I was too numb to say anything for I was in fear that I would bring the wrath of the authorities upon myself.

The State Educational Department in Pretoria took this as a blow against the establishment. Critics and educationalists rallied around in support; my lecturer, Diana Hulton(Kenton)and respected artist, Andrew Verster; as there was talk that the State Educational Department in Pretoria was going to press charges. Under the laws of the country, all the work that I did at the Durban Technikon Art School belonged to the institution — therefore the state. The newspaper article published in the Sunday Tribune, May 10th 1981 reads as follows:

‘Lauryn still faces the possibility of being charged for damaging her own creations . . . She has been told that the Technikon could press charges of malicious injury to property against her as the drawings were the property of the Technikon (state), but artists claim the drawings are the property of the student. ‘

The State did not want to have any more media attention so did not press charges. I completed my higher diploma in fine art, which consisted of a body of work plus a thesis, which was assessed by external examiners including Andrew Verster. I was told that because of the standard of my work I would be granted a three-year overseas bursary. I had been accepted into the Royal College of Art in London….

Sadly my parents sided with the state, they had a very real fear that I, would fall foul of the system. Falling foul of the political system was the focus of J. M. Coetzee’s book, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ in which the magistrate’s empathy with the victims of his Empire landed him in prison and branded as an enemy of the state – a book that inspired a whole generation of artists and authors to work within a wicked system.

John Coetzee refers to this dilemma in his book ‘Taking Offense’, he states: ‘Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is a state we claim for ourselves. Affront to the innocence of our children or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being but upon constructs . . . by which we live’.

Apartheid was the great author that wrote the story we were all trapped in and I was told that I must learn to censor myself before the great author would censor me.

I was told to go to the police station to fill in a statement and to collect the evidence, my torn print. I found the little pre-fabricated police office in the port. The policeman that I dealt with was an understanding and compassionate man, who told me that he too loved art and in particular my picture. We sat around his desk and sticky taped the picture back together and hung it on the wall next to a poster that displayed photographs of weapons that terrorists used in the country. He was very proud of his newly acquired picture and I felt that the piece had had reached another stage in its development as a political statement against Apartheid.

I was censored, as the State Educational Department ensured that my marks were dropped because of my anti-apartheid, anti-Nationalist government stance; they did not want my kind of art representing South Africa overseas. The Michealis School of Art at the University of Cape Town offered me a post-graduate scholarship on the basis of my work and my stand.
see below; “Ripped Off” article and photograph taken by a reporter from the Natal Mercury, Durban, South Africa 7-5-1981

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