South Africa, World

Repurposing Historic Symbols: Lessons from Hector Pieterson via Trump’s America to Selborne College

By J Brooks Spector 11 December 2017

The iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson from the 16 June 1976 Soweto Uprising has once again become news, as a high school student reused the image for an alumni reunion poster, but in a particularly problematic way. Are there larger issues at play here? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

There was a time, up until not so very long ago, when it could be assumed that most literate persons in the West were familiar with the large body of lessons, stories, images, allusions and metaphors that came from their sacred religious texts, the Greek and Roman myths and legends, and not a little of the historical baggage of their own – and neighbouring – societies as well. (And I suspect a similar situation prevailed in Eastern nations, with their own respective canons of religious and mythological discourse.) In fact, this knowledge on the part of audiences and viewers meant painters or sculptors had the sense that viewers both had an understanding of the works and their meanings, and perhaps even when those viewers were largely illiterate as well. A corollary to this understanding would be the way someone could easily see the implied meanings and borrowed images in any satirical use of such symbols and would understand a subversive message in the image.

But times have changed. Readers who had to study, say, Hamlet in high school or at university were almost certainly subjected to a lecture on the meanings of all those obscure flower images contained in the text and crucial to understanding the motives and implications of the characters. And yet, the meanings were perfectly clear to most of Shakespeare’s audiences when he wrote the play, even if those of us in the later 20th century largely had no clue about any of it. Incidentally, back in the Renaissance, a member of the literate and upper classes could be assumed to be capable of picking up a musical instrument – a recorder or a lute, perhaps – and play along in an impromptu evening’s entertainment. We’ve largely lost that skills level in the West as well – unless one’s chosen instrument is a DVD player or the latest iPod-like device.

In the past several weeks, in South Africa, the latest example of a flawed, deficient understanding of the meaning and use of symbols has come to light – and it has generated much indignation. An alumni reunion poster for Selborne College in East London drew upon the iconic photo of the dying Hector Pieterson, his sister, and a third student, from the opening hours of the 1976 Soweto students’ uprising.

Almost certainly, some of the richness and power of this picture comes from the shocked immediacy of the image, but it also seems to be that it draws its impact from an accidental but strong resonance with the religious fervour of an artistic masterpiece like Michelangelo’s Pieta – the sculpture of the dead Christ in the arms of his mother – even though most contemporary viewers may not be conscious of that echo across the centuries. But, instead of depicting students, as with the original photograph, the student artist gave the two accompanying students dogs’ heads and erased Pieterson’s own physiognomy entirely. Whatever meaning was intended, it surely was not meant to be flattering to the original one.

Michelangelo’s Pieta (Wikimedia Commons)

Well, okay, the repurposing of iconic – even sacred – images to make a very different point than the original meaning of the art is something that has been an established feature of political rhetoric for a very long time. Just for an example, consider the frequent reworkings of Michelangelo’s image of Adam receiving the gift of life from God, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in order to make a political point about someone giving power to a successor or underling – especially when the comparison is less than a laudatory one. (Daily Maverick has been known to do just that with Jacob Zuma, front and centre in the illustration.)

Consider the many reworkings of iconic illustrations like that famous British (and later, American) World War I recruitment poster, featuring Field Marshal Kitchener’s stern face, wearing his military cap, and famous drooping moustache, insisting men must volunteer for the army. More recent versions have sometimes used this imagery for entirely less military purposes.

Similarly, there has long been a re-positioning of that Spirit of ‘76 picture of a trio of American revolutionary war soldiers, complete with bandages from battle, playing a fife, a drum, and carrying the flag – eventually by anti-war marchers, thereby turning the meaning completely upside down. Such uses are designed to call into question blind, unthinking patriotism. And yes, both the original image and its repositioning can both have valuable and, sometimes, eventually respected places in visual rhetoric.

But sometimes, too, for whatever reason, an image has become so symbolic, so revered, and so important, that fiddling with it has real consequences. (Eventually, perhaps, almost any image passes into history sufficiently that it can become everyone and anyone’s property to use any way they wish, but not perhaps when some of the people portrayed in it are still living.) Inevitably, some people will find a way to misuse an image for their own purposes and then they will cry that they didn’t realise what they had done, or that they didn’t understand the deeply felt meaning of the image and the history around it. Oh, right. They didn’t know.

But let’s put aside the question of the state of mind of the student artist for the moment. He has now issued an apology (while the school in question put the blame on him rather than take much responsibility) after the fact that, although it seems forced, the fuss still may have led to some introspection on his part about the impact of his illustration and why people became so upset about it.

The bigger question surely must be how the events around the original photograph and the image are being taught in schools, and what meanings they are meant to convey to students? How do pupils and teachers interpret all of this information? And what do they learn about the history of their own nation from such discussions? Is this powerful image of the dying young man used to analyse, discuss and explore the larger social, political and educational circumstances of those times for students who were, after all, born decades afterwards? (Any, increasingly, so were many teachers as well.) Or, is this picture just one more image in a school textbook that students flip through quickly in order to find the bits and pieces that will be on the class’s final exam?

In fact, it is a reasonable guess that both students and teachers only poorly understand the essential facts of the picture as a moment in history, as well as its enormous emotional charge, along with the larger context of the image. And if that is true, then the emotional impact of refiguring it is unknown as well – unless the student artist actually intended to disparage the picture and the marchers, despite his eventual apologia.

And so, herewith a short quiz for readers about this picture of Hector Pieterson and the surrounding events of that day.

  1. The photograph was taken by? Jürgen Schadeberg; Ernst Cole; Peter Magubane; an anonymous news photographer working for the Associated Press or Reuters; or, Sam Nzima?
  2. The people portrayed in the picture, besides Hector Pieterson, are? Name them. What was their relationship to Pieterson?
  3. Why were the students protesting? (Note: no points will be awarded for offering the obvious comment: “against apartheid”.) A change in school holidays; a decision by government to extend school hours; a decision to enforce the teaching of science and mathematics in Soweto schools in Afrikaans that had been decided earlier; or, a change in the passing level for matriculation exams?
  4. Who was reportedly the first person who died during the protests that day? What was his position and what was he doing that day? For extra credit, what was his racial classification?
  5. Who decided to carry out that protest march, and where did they come from?
  6. Soweto is a big place. Where did Hector Pieterson’s death actually take place?
  7. What did some of those student leaders do about their circumstances, after the initial days of the student uprising?
  8. Finally, which liberation organisation secretly planned and led this event?

Questions like these, and the discussion they could inevitably provoke in a school setting, would almost certainly make it much less likely that a student could use that photograph with its disfigurement, without a much deeper understanding of its emotional resonances to millions of South Africans, and the need for caution in reinterpreting it unthinkingly. Maybe in a century or so, people will have been able to see this picture without feeling that its disfigurement represents a sub rosa political agenda, but in the meantime, it seems it must still be treated with some real respect for its meanings.

South Africa is not, of course, unique in having to come to terms with the respect given to potent imagery. In America these days, President Trump has made a positive fetish out of embracing the American flag, the national anthem, and the way some sports figures have chosen to respond to that flag and anthem at the beginning of their respective games. The dropping to one knee – mostly, but not entirely, by black athletes – to call attention to continuing issues in civil rights and the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement, in the hands of a racially insensitive (or deliberately racially aggressive) chief executive has become a divisive, angry use of symbols that are presumably designated to unify a nation, not splinter it into warring tribes. Think back for a moment about the public debate over the virtue or otherwise of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raising of their fists in black power salutes when they were given their Olympic medals at the 1968 games in Mexico City.

For this writer, there is also a remarkable echo – and memory – of the political rancour that arose during the Vietnam War over the burning of the American national flag by anti-war protesters, wearing it sewn onto the seat of one’s trousers as a sign of displeasure at the war, over just the raising of it on its pole upside down in the universal sign of a ship in distress. Objectively, neither the flag nor Hector Pieterson’s picture are, in and of themselves, sacred items, but in different ways they have become so for many.

But, rather than the item itself, it is the way people imbue them with meaning and emotional content that makes them matter so greatly to people. For that reason, at the minimum, school artists might better consider how their appropriation of an important national image can inflame a nation from the cavalier manner of its use. And educators must learn how to teach the nation’s history with the richness it deserves and the meaning of such images. DM

Photo: The original iconic photo that was taken by photographer Sam Nzima.