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From Cecil Rhodes to Emmett Till: Postcolonial Dilemmas in Visual Representation


This chapter presents a transnational analysis of the two most controversial decolonial protests in contemporary visual culture: the demand to remove public memorials celebrating imperialism and slavery outside the museum and the dispute over the right to show historical images exposing the bodily violence of racial terrorism and white supremacy in the museum. Considering these divisive debates over colonial history side by side, it investigates the transformative role of visual and esthetic practices in these campaigns. Based on the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign movement born at the University of Cape Town (2015) and the display of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial in New York (2017), this essay examines what implications they hold for reframing postcolonial studies today.

Censorship is to art what lynching is to justice.

—Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Gates 1990, p. 23)

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  1. 1.

    I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared parts of this essay at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, as well as the Forum Transregionale Studien, Freie Universität, and Humboldt Universität in Berlin, and am indebted to the insightful interlocutors I found in each occasion. Special thanks is due to Tamar Garb, without whom this essay would not have been possible.

  2. 2.

    Attesting to the public interest, one essay by Coco Fusco (2017) reached over 100,000 views online within three days. So much has been published in the last four years that a cursory reference list of articles is impossible. Only a small portion will be cited here.

  3. 3.

    Besides hundreds of impassioned op-eds on mainstream media outlets in the US, this case made it on daytime television when the popular morning show The View (March 22, 2017) held a five-minute discussion about it, with all hosts unanimously siding with Dana Schutz.

  4. 4.

    In Ukraine, for instance, an anti-Soviet initiative made law in 2015 set out to rid the nation of USSR-era symbols, ordering the renaming of streets and cities, as well as the dismantling of monuments from public space. By 2017, all 1320 statues to Lenin had been removed. In 2016, the Polish government urged regional authorities to take down 500 Soviet monuments and compiled a list of 1500 streets and organizations to be renamed. In the last decade alone, similar cases have been reported in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Mongolia.

  5. 5.

    In a telling admission, the doyen of postcolonial studies, Edward Said, confessed, “When it comes to the oral and the verbal … I have a very highly developed vocabulary … When it comes to the visual arts … I feel somewhat tongue-tied … just to think about the visual arts generally sends me into a panic” (Mitchell 1998).

  6. 6.

    The hit song “Beer for My Horses,” recorded by Toby Keith and Willie Nelson in 2003, sparked controversy when the journalist Max Blumenthal denounced it as “a racially tinged, explicitly pro-lynching anthem” (Blumenthal 2008). This accusation unleashed a crossfire of defenses and attacks. Keith himself put out a statement claiming that the song was “not a racist thing or about lynching” (Fox News 2008).

  7. 7.

    In counterpoint to the current disputes over confederate markers, it is worth recalling that when Barack Obama stepped into office, he was falsely accused of having removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the oval office. This symbolic gesture alone was enough for conservative critics such as Dinesh D’Souza and Mike Huckabee to accuse Obama of serving a hidden anti-colonial agenda that ultimately sought to overturn white power, downsize America, and affront the UK.

  8. 8.

    On January 24, 1956, four months after their acquittal, Roy Bryant and J.W. Millan received $3000 to $4000 for sharing their story and admitting their guilt in Look magazine.

  9. 9.

    On September 22, 1955, one week before the trial, Jet magazine would publish the close-up photographs of Emmett Till’s mutilated face taken by David Jackson. It immediately sold out. For the first time ever, Johnson Publishing Co. did a second printing. When this sold out too, thousands more copies were run off the press. The Chicago Defender also published similar pictures two days later.

  10. 10.

    See, for instance, Wilkerson 2016; Hobbs 2016. For an overview, see Gorn 2018, pp. 285–290.

  11. 11.

    To add insult to injury, in 2016 one book claimed that Till grew up in a single parent home because, a decade before he was lynched, his father faced a tragically similar end. A black soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was court-martialed and hung for raping two Italian women, on trumped-up charges and after an unfair trial. See Wideman 2016.

  12. 12.

    The confession was revealed in Tyson 2017.

  13. 13.

    The first sign was only installed in 2007 after a long and concerted effort by activists. See Haag 2018. Because of the repeated vandalism, a 500 pound-heavy bulletproof memorial was erected on October 19, 2019.

  14. 14.

    This controversy had endless spin-offs: Parker Bright, the artist whose protest was captured on a widely-circulated Instagram picture, raised money to stage a protest in Paris after finding out that French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa appropriated it as part of an installation at Palais de Tokyo—the artist and curator then removed the work from view and issued an apology—, and then subsequently painted that picture of himself in a canvas titled Confronting My Own Possible Death (2018). Somali-Australian artist Hamishi Farah was also accused of gaining access to Schutz’s Facebook account to painting a photograph of her child as payback, and then showing this work entitled Representation of Arlo (2018) at the LISTE art fair in Basel.

  15. 15.

    Siding with Schutz, Francis Fukuyama viewed the incident as “an example of adopting a stereotyped and vastly over-generalized understanding of an individual, based on how racial identity supposedly limits her” (Fitch 2019).

  16. 16.

    By 1976, there was a “sprawling proliferation of pro-Rhodesian organizations in the United States,” Gerald Horne has written, “The transatlantic question of race was the essential glue that held the lobby together” (Horne 2001, p. 101).

  17. 17.

    A similar debate blew up in Belgium in 2010. While some were continuing to honor King Leopold II who had been responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans in his private colony of the Congo Free State, others attacked his statues, especially after Louis Michel, former Belgian Foreign Minister, had spurned the recent scholarship and the heaps of criticism as nothing but “false accusations” (cited in Mock 2010).

  18. 18.

    The Federation, also known as the Central African Federation, comprised Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi).

  19. 19.

    Achille Mbembe aptly pointed out: “The debate therefore should have never been about whether or not it should be brought down. All along, the debate should have been about why did it take so long to do so” (Mbembe 2015).

  20. 20.

    “The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise,” Cecil Rhodes told the house the House of Assembly in Cape Town in 1887. Then, he said: “We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa” (quoted in Magubane 1996, p. 108). Akin to the n-word in the United States, the k-word is the worst racial expletive for Blacks in South Africa.

  21. 21.

    In the 1970s, black students started boycotting the scholarships. The question of scholarships for women had been raised periodically in different quarters from the early 1920s, but the first female Rhodes Scholars were only elected in 1977.

  22. 22.

    Felix Gross, too, stated the following about Schreiner’s novella: “The book caused a sensation not only because it accused Rhodes of the murder, rape, theft, and torture committed by Chartered Company troops in Matabeleland but because of its frontispiece, a repulsive picture omitted in later editions, of three hanged Natives dangling from trees. It was an unmitigated condemnation of Rhodes as a man, a politician, and a coloniser” (Gross 1957, p. 398).

  23. 23.

    In the run-up to the 1994 elections in South Africa, this photograph was taken out of the permanent exhibition at the Schreiner House, Cradock, due to unusual number of young white men rallying around it (Walters and Fogg 2010).

  24. 24.

    See Moten 2003, pp. 59–76.

  25. 25.

    The NAACP’s The Crisis printed lynching photographs to fuel public sentiment. During the 1930s, though, they received letters complaining that “the printing of such pictures did not aid the fight against lynching, but served only to create racial hatred.” The editors replied: “the sheer horror of lynching serves to rouse ordinarily lethargic people to action” (NAACP 1937, p. 61).

  26. 26.

    In terms of the scholarship in this bourgeoning field, the ground-breaking volume was Allen 2000, followed by Apel 2004.

  27. 27.

    For more on this, see Brook et al. 2008.

  28. 28.

    In the two famous parentheses in Barthes’s essay used to dismantle the pretence of a grand narratives of humanity, he points to colonial history in France and racial terrorism in the US: “Go and ask the parents of Emmet [sic] Till, the young negro murdered by white men […] what they think of the Great Family of Man” (Barthes 1993 [1957], p. 102).

  29. 29.

    Dario Gamboni himself avowed, “Extending this inquiry beyond its [Western] limits would represent a much too ambitious endeavour, as the subject is enormous, and largely—to my knowledge—unexplored. But a brief glance is at least needed, if only because the destruction of art is so often interpreted as belonging to stages of civilization supposedly relegated to societies defined successively as ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘developed’” (Gamboni 1997, p. 107).

  30. 30.

    Christina Sharpe (Mitter 2017) and Aruna d’Souza (2018) were among the most eloquent critics to point this out.

  31. 31.

    A website called Does This Offend You allowed students to report artworks which offended them personally. This was then flagged up with a curatorial team, which had to come to a decision.

  32. 32.

    In 2018, in France, a long-awaited academic survey of the imperial history of sexual exploitation in visual culture came under fire due to the objections against the reproduction of such images. The newspaper Libération received several letters of protest after publishing a special issue on the publication, and the official book launch would be indefinitely postponed because of the heated polemic. Pascal Blanchard refused to debate this issue, using the example of lynching photographs in the US to point out that the display of shocking images may be contentious but ultimately sparks a conversation (Blanchard et al. 2018).

  33. 33.

    The Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Max Price, doubled down on these claims in an op-ed: “Even if you know the historic context of the photos, a powerful contemporary context may overwhelm this, leading you to conclude that the photos are just one more indication of how this university views black and white people” (Price 2017).


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Ramos, A.D. (2021). From Cecil Rhodes to Emmett Till: Postcolonial Dilemmas in Visual Representation. In: Kim, D.D. (eds) Reframing Postcolonial Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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