About Gateway

(First stanza of “Gateway” poem: sticker paste-up at entrance to Wits School of Arts (2017)

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After extensive engagement with collaborative practice, I felt it necessary to create something that was made in my own voice. I wanted to find a way to articulate my own questions about the education structure and started to write Gateway after returning from a visit to Cape Town which often served as a reflective space away from the university. The poem thus became a creative outlet that allowed me to question without worrying about academic expectations or validity. Gateway started as a self-reflexive exercise which spontaneously and surprisingly to myself, manifested as a poem. The imagery reflected in the poem was extensively informed by the #FeesMustFall movement which primarily started at Wits University in 2015. The #FeesMustFall movement had a ripple effect across South Africa during my studies at Wits. There was no shortage of reporting on social media showing students in protest often clashing with police and security forces. The constant exposure to the coverage of protests and the personal accounts I experienced at the university space compelled me to write in a reflective manner, from the position of witness and to create what could loosely be described as a testimonial that questions the institution through the medium of poetry. Writing the poem from the perspective of an art student at the university, created a need to show the poem, in order for it be experienced publicly. As a result I needed to think critically about how this would happen and I experimented with various approaches that involved reading the poem, performing it and attempting a design for large banners that would be hung on the facade of the university building, facing a public street in the inner city of Johannesburg. I wanted the poem to evolve, to live outside of it’s pages, in order to propose an interdisciplinary method displayed in the university space that could potentially rethink the current curriculum and structure set in place.

I soon ran into various problems. The banners in particular, as an idea became the most challenging problem to grapple with. These “larger than life” objects existed in my mind and became an idea that transformed into a daunting, violent symbol that might have performed an imposing act; one that could only be described as the poem being “shouted at people” rather than it being shared. I could not execute such a boastful act from my position as a white person in South Africa that bears a history in colonialism, a system that functions by “taking over” spaces for personal gain. I was faced with a dilemma, but through the interaction with ideas around intersectionality and failure, this problem turned into something productive.

(Tenth stanza of “Gateway” poem: sticker paste-up on police vehicle parked on Wits campus outside Solomon Mahlangu House (2017)

I made the decision to print the poem onto stickers and to stick each individual stanza in a different place on Wits campus. I chose a quiet day to do so, to inconspicuously put Gateway into the space that it questions without being noticed. I realised that I was still imposing my position and my ideas onto a space but felt that the medium of the sticker allowed me to do this in a way that would not draw direct attention to myself. I also became aware that the reason why I felt better about this was because of fear. Fear of being noticed, fear of committing violent acts in a space that has experienced so much violence imposed onto people, while my body would remain unharmed. I wanted to test these introspective feelings and push them further and thus took the spontaneous opportunity to stick one of the stanzas onto a police van that was parked in a very public area on the university campus. I was not afraid of any consequences. I knew that this act would go unnoticed because of my position of privilege. I documented this act of rebellion and soon moved onto my next target. Outside of the university library I was confronted with a notice board that stated “Wall of Shame”. I realised that this was a tactic used to publicly shame students who did not complete assignments. I confidently stuck a stanza on top of this sign in front of a security guard who was not concerned by my actions.

(Eighth stanza of “Gateway” poem: sticker paste-up on notice board outside of Wartenweiler Library on Wits campus 2017)

The act of sticking or placing the poem on top of these spaces I deemed worthy of critique did not strike me as problematic until I proceeded to stick a stanza on a brass plaque that commemorates educators and students who lost their lives in WWI and WWII. I did not think twice about sticking my poem on this object, until I documented the process, paused and looked closely at the image of the Protea flower gleaming in the sunlight. I immediately experienced an overwhelming sense of nationalist conditioning that resonated with my own history. A history of Afrikana, a history of pride that has its roots heavily set in a power associated with my own identity and mother tongue- Afrikaans; a language strongly associated with oppression. I started to feel deep shame and regret and quickly moved the sticker to the side of the plaque structure where it was less visible. Why did I not experience the same regret after willfully using my own position of privilege to criticise the presence of the police van? Why did this only occur to me in retrospect? There is no resolution to the problems introduced by these questions, which is one of the reasons why Gateway purposefully contains no question marks. There is no “easy way out” and no way of reconciling these mistakes and failures that have their origins in archaic power structures. There is only the decision to learn and to listen to the moment, that is now so crucially vital, so inescapably relevant to the possibility of change.

(Ninth stanza of Gateway poem sticker paste-up stuck on a plaque, and then removed, and then stuck in a less “imposing” position. Wits Campus (2017)

Genevieve Louw (2017)