Until recently, the South African photographer David Goldblatt had arranged for his archive to go to the University of Cape Town upon his death. The university’s library also housed a collection of work produced by Goldblatt over the past 60 years, with 18 archival boxes filled with prints, transparencies, and negatives. All that changed in February of this year, however, when Goldblatt, who has been lauded for piercing portraiture that positioned him to become the first South African photographer to ever exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, announced that he would be moving both the collection and, in time, his entire archive to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The full explanation for Goldblatt’s decision was not immediately made clear. A statement issued by the University of Cape Town explained that Goldblatt “could not be persuaded out of his view that freedom of expression, artistic freedom, and rights of artists are no longer protected” by the university. To understand the context behind such a statement requires going back to an incident that took place at the college in 2015 and events that followed in its wake.
It began with an act of subversion involving a student throwing a bucket of feces onto a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a colonial expansionist who provided the original endowment of land for the founding of the University of Cape Town. Rhodes had come to serve as a symbol of what many students felt was a learning environment that continued to perpetuate a colonial legacy of oppression, and the act of protest sparked a movement with an agenda embodied in its name: “Rhodes Must Fall.” And fall he did, upon the removal of the statue by the university one month later. Buoyed by the triumph, in early 2016 the student movement began calling for a reduction in annual fee increases and more affordable student accommodations. At the height of the protests, 23 pieces of artwork were taken off the walls of various university halls and burned by students in a massive bonfire on campus. One protestor at the time described the works, to the Cape Town news agency GroundUp, as “symbols of the colonizer.”
In response to the unrest, the university convened a task force made up of academics and student representatives with a mission to go around campus removing artwork that “may be seen to recognize or celebrate colonial oppressors and/or be offensive or controversial for the way in which they depict black people.” Based on their recommendations, toward the end of 2015 the university removed 75 pieces of art from its buildings. The list of works, which remained undisclosed until a recent freedom-of-information request submitted by a university staff member, includes art by some of South Africa’s most celebrated artists, including Breyten Breytenbach, Pieter Hugo, Vusi Khumalo, Lucky Sibiya, Pippa Skotnes, Irma Stern, and Diane Victor.
Last month, a year since the catalytic student burning of artwork at the university, Goldblatt happened to be in New Haven at Yale to participate in an educational workshop with a group of young photographers and curators on the topic of photography books. At 86, Goldblatt exudes the candid air of a man long since set in his ways. Seated in a penthouse suite overlooking the Ivy Leauge campus’s scenic surrounds, he spoke to ARTnews about what prompted his decision to disassociate from the University of Cape Town and give his work and archive to Yale instead.
“In the early part of this century, I was aware that I had approached my young middle-age and therefore needed to make some plans to deal with my work,” Goldblatt said, in a deadpan manner that made it unclear how much this was a jocular nod to mortality. Upon realizing there was no ready repository in South Africa for a photographer’s work, he approached the University of Cape Town with the idea of establishing a documentary center that he felt could adequately house his archive.
After “quite a lot of nagging,” Goldblatt said, the university acquiesced. A cold room required to properly house an archive was installed at the price of $39,000, and Paul Weinberg—a trusted colleague Goldblatt describes as a man “superbly qualified” for the job—was hired to be the archive’s director. By that point, Goldblatt felt assured that he could entrust his work to the university upon his passing.
“But I had an escape clause built in,” he said. “I wanted to make sure if there was misbehavior on the part of the university, I or my heirs could withdraw.”
A change in directorship owing to Weinberg’s acceptance of a temporary post elsewhere in the university proved displeasing to Goldblatt. Then came the Rhodes Must Fall protests, the burning of the artworks, and, later, the real nail in the coffin: the university removing from its own walls artwork that was deemed “problematic.” “It was an extremely short-sighted policy,” Goldblatt said. “It was effectively an abrogation of the freedom of expression.”
Expanding on this point in relation to the rights of an artist to represent another race, Goldblatt was frank and forthright. “We’re human beings—fuck it,” he said. “We need to be able to talk and think of each other.” Instead of fixating on differing matters of identity, Goldblatt continued, we need to find ways to “surmount that fundamental fact of existence” and create pathways for connection. “That’s the nature of human interaction,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Goldblatt brought up the case of a sculpture by the South African artist Willie Bester that sits in the University of Cape Town’s library, now swathed in dark fabric that shrouds its form after indignant students first covered it in 2015 and then again, a year later on the anniversary of the Rhodes statue removal. The sculpture depicts Sarah Baartman, an 18th-century Khoikhoi woman who was taken from her home in Cape Town and made to stand nude for public display in Europe, where she earned the egregious moniker “Hottentot Venus.” For years Baartman was the subject of spectacle before dying in France, where a museum would later continue to publicly exhibit her skeleton and brain. Eventually, in the 1990s, following an appeal to the French government by Nelson Mandela, Baartman’s body was returned to the land of her birth and laid to rest near a village where she was born.
“I visited Willie Bester after they’d done this,” Goldblatt said. During his visit, he learned that Bester felt aggrieved by the university’s treatment of his work for a very particular reason. During Apartheid, Bester explained, his appearance was a point of confusion, as he was born the son of both a black and mixed-race parent. Given the state requirement that all citizens be classified by their race on identity documents, Bester fell into an ambiguous area. As a result, he received the rare classification: “Other Coloured 07.” For Bester, the act of covering up his work perpetuated the very prejudice that he and Baartman had spent much of their lives experiencing.
The censorship of artwork such as Bester’s by students—and the continuation of those actions by the university—is for Goldblatt an intractable point of contention. Goldblatt explained this directly to the university’s vice chancellor Max Price in a letter calling for a reassessment of the actions of the committee. Goldblatt suggested that the university either “remove every piece of art from campus” or hold a “series of exhibitions and public discussions on colonial art, post-colonial art, and what should be considered permissible.”
Goldblatt’s recommendations were not instituted. “Basically, you’ve tried to be a little bit pregnant,” Goldblatt said to me, in imaginary conversation with the university. “You can’t be. You’re either pregnant or you’re not. You either respect freedom of expression or you don’t. You can’t particularize it like that.” He continued: “So I said I’m sorry but I’m withdrawing my work, and that’s where we are.” Goldblatt was careful to note that a full digital archive of his work will be available in his home country—just not in physical form at the home he had originally intended.
“I make all kinds of compromises in my life,” the artist said. “I’m a sinner from way back in every conceivable way, but I will not compromise about my work.”