Owed to (C)ode: Oxford Edition is a re-production of Owed to (C)ode created specifically for the opening of the Ruskin School of Art’s new Bullingdon Road Studios at Oxford University in October 2015.
Oxford Edition collides recent and historic events of Oxford University and a recent residence in South Africa.
My attendance at Haroon Gunn-Salie’s show History After Apartheid (Goodman Gallery, JB) and active presence at his talk In Conversation with Adejoke Tugbiyele resulted in a profound contextualisation of two prominent events at Oxford University in 2015.
Gunn-Salie’s show featured his work Soft Vengeance; casts of the arms of imperialists Jan van Riebeeck, Bartholomew Dias, Cecil John Rhodes, Carl von Brandis and Paul Kruger. These arms, cast directly from their respective statues across Cape Town and Johannesburg, gigantic and blood-red, were profoundly moving and a strong reminder of the scale of their presence in history, and their global legacy.
During the Q&A I spoke of recent events at Oxford University. There was a debate at the Oxford Union in May 2015 entitled ‘This house believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies’. On the day of this debate, students of the Oxford Union created the ‘Colonial Comeback Cocktail’ featuring an image of black hands in chains alongside the ingredients for, and price of the drink distributed on flyers and posters. I framed this information as a horror story, as opposed to a question, to the artists and audience at the talk. . It is clear that the idea of a post-Apartheid or post-colonial existence is far from a reality.
The other significant event at Oxford University in 2015 was Encaenia. The opera singer Jessye Norman was amongst the recipients of an honorary degree. I was informed by my father, a black classical musician who has found much solace in Norman’s existence, which I have inherited. Norman’s documented performance of Purcell’s When I am Laid in Earth is a favourite of mine. She commands, through Purcell, that we remember her.
I juxtapose her image in song with the two sets of arms and hands – the bloody imperialists’ and the enslaved blacks’. I sing the code of the constructed image as libretto in Zulu. I feed my phonetic translation back into the original image which glitches it (in a quite poetic partial obfuscation of the vicious title of the cocktail).
Art’s existence is for observation, creative criticality, collision of conflicting ideas and to use site, time and place in performance for maximum effect; how better to express my complex and sensitive issues regarding race and history specific to the institution than in the institution itself? Simultaneously public (a large audience) and private (only open to students, staff and alumni of Oxford University).
I am also confident in the knowledge that the artist can get away with almost any observation, critique, presence, through opera- it is non-threatening, it is revered as a fine craft, a high art – its sweetness, its aesthetic filter on the voice, its deliverance of its content fused with melody coerces the audience into a sense of importance. I use opera to subvert. My voice is my weapon. Opera is my code for critique.