The hope of art: a public artwork at Rhodes University

My heart, life and land

My heart, life and land

This world constantly breaks my heart, and so I need to make art. It allows me to hope.

I open myself to the heartache in this place. I let it flood my heart and fill my mind until my thoughts are exhausted and I am battered, broken, cracked.

That is when I make art. That is when I remember the beauty of humanity.


Can this feeling be shared? Can art be used to give other people hope? Can art help other people exist?


Art is humanity – before language, gender, race, class, prejudice or (mis)translation separate us from each other. It transcends barriers of communication and power relations. It speaks in sounds that are understood by the soul, and returns us to ourselves.

This is why I believe that a public artwork at Rhodes University can provide a platform for peace and healing in a time when we need it most.

It would be way of saying the things that need to be said without saying a word.

Something is wrong. Illogical, unkind, unjust, violent. It hits me like a double-edged arrow. Straight for my heart. Straight for my mind. I’m broken and betrayed.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is painted on the street in front of the administration building and ‘Marikana’ is splashed around campus. The painted words hardly do justice to anguish, agony and anger that they represent.

Issues of race, institutional oppression and stagnant transformation have fueled debates, filled social media feeds, informed conversations and, more recently, culminated in the graffiti that marks the campus of Rhodes University.

The university has recognised and respected the graffiti for the issues it represents – which is an admirable demonstration of commitment to transformative conversation.

The graffiti markedly changes campus. The paint affects spaces and demands attention. It symbolises the pain and anger of a generation suffering for the crimes committed by our history. Pain that comes from a legacy of violence, segregation and the destruction of humanity. It recognises the horrific reality that affects each and every one of us. In order to address this history, and ensure an improved future, we are responsible for healing our present and remembering our humanity.

Graffiti cannot do this, but perhaps public art can.

I still believe that the world is a beautiful place. I need us to remember that.

I go places to learn, and I learn everywhere I go.

I wring and wrap my thoughts until they’re entirely twisted; forming new shapes and plaited concepts. I play with the language, form and image until they align in a single line.

I have party to the discussions, group movements, debates and open dialogues; in small-scale conversations, mediated discussions, documentaries, protestspresentations and student body meetings.

I have been learning about the literature, philosophies and theories behind the (in)Humanities of our history.

I have been following the political discourse that shapes our society.

I have engaged in culturally conscious spaces – places where art has served as a means for expressing anger, heartache, confusion and reconciliation – beyond race or gender or language.

SRdeVilliers_StreetArt_FeatureI have consciously studying graffiti in Grahamstown because I believe it has immense potential as a form of expression, communication and counter-discourse. As one of the most accessible, uncensored and undeniably intriguing forms of public politics, graffiti raises social consciousness about issues, anger and pasts that are otherwise excluded from public discourse.

But while the graffiti around campus raises critical social issues, it is not saying something. It’s screaming.

Rather, it is a scream in the dark. We can hear the scream: the searing pain, the seething anger. But we can’t identify the origin, so we can’t directly address whatever is motivating the scream – whatever is causing the pain. Moreover, others who might identify with that pain cannot connect to each other; they cannot form a collective and they are excluded from making public statements about their experiences. There are also those who not only endorse the graffiti, but sincerely wish that they had been involved in it. They’re eagerly anticipating the next act of vandalism; the next bold statement; the next angry scream.

But where graffiti screams, public art opens conversation. Public art engages the public – the audience, the space and the politics implicit in negotiating the two. Public art can create spaces where all people can engage in conversations about our violent and racialised past, the issues that plague our present, and the possibility of a transformed and reconciled future.

While graffiti is a rebellious statement, public art is an open conversation that transcends the limitations of medium, language, regulated spaces and power relations. If we had a space for public art, it would open dialogue with the graffiti artists and extend the conversation to the larger public.

What could be more transformative, and less exclusive?

I pick up a pen. A black bic. (I need to start buying in bulk). I begin to draw.

Drinking my morning coffee/during a lecture/while watching a documentary/on a bench near trees/before I go to sleep.

I think, I draw; I draw while I think and I think while I draw. My mind asks questions, my heart searches for solutions, and my hand moves across the page.

Black ink bleeds onto the page, the heart is torn, the thoughts tire.

The brickwork in front of the admin building is the perfect site for change.

Site of change.

Given that the road in front of the admin block was the site of the first graffiti markings, and that the brickwork forms a bridge between Drosty Lawns and the University, it seems to be the perfect public space. It serves as the physical site of interaction between the public, the students and the institution.

On either side of the brickwork, spectacular flowers grow from rich soil and life flourishes in glorious colour.

I draw while my imagination unravels scenes, stories and sentiments. They’re woven from the walls of my heart, the strands of my mind and the thread of this beautiful world. They’re stitched with my soul and sewn with my dreams.

It’s a piece of my humanity.

A large outline of the African continent should be traced in the space and painted a solid colour, either red or brown. What colour is land?

People would then cover their hands in black, white or red paint, and press them onto the area so that printed hands cover the entire continent. Layers of hands. (Red)(Black)(White)(Black)(Red)(Red). Building the land and burying it in more hands.

But why these violent colours? Humanity is not violent.

Because violent experiences give way to violent emotions, and it is necessary for the colours to correspond with the emotions that they are expressing. There is a canyon of pain that needs to be communicated and the colours must speak to those emotions.

Moreover, the colours respond to the visual language of the graffiti while simultaneously alluding to the bloody battle of racism in South Africa – the blood spilled from bodies over of the colour of skin.

The completed continent would symbolise every individual’s responsibility to the future of this country, this continent and this human race.

The piece will serve as a simple reminder, relevant to every human being.


Motho ke motho ka batho.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.

I am because we are.

Every life matters.

At the end of the day, we are born from and bleed into the same land.


EveryLifeMatters: A proposal for a public artwork at Rhodes University

This is how I make art.

I need art in order to exist. This is why I make art.

I need art to give other people hope.

My hope is to HelpOtherPeopleExist.



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