Letter from former Grantleigh pupil on 'demonic' art: Stop with the witch-hunt!

Letter from former Grantleigh pupil on 'demonic' art: Stop with the witch-hunt!

My name is Kate Solomons. I am a former Grantleigh College pupil who attended the school for five years before matriculating in 2012.

Throughout my studies, I took several elective subjects, one of which was Visual Arts. It was a subject I cherished immensely – it offered me a sense of liberty I had never experienced before. I was able to paint the emotions I deeply felt onto the canvas of my soul.

I failed miserably trying to fit into the status quo of the "ideal scholar" with blazers adorned with athletic and academic badges. It was profoundly difficult to not feel like I was in exile. Within the arts, I felt worthy and important. I did not have to pretend to portray a happy-go-lucky, evangelical persona of sorts, hiding behind a façade of perfectionism.

I was allowed to be who I was.

I was heard.

However, my artwork did not come without controversy. I once fashioned a doll out of chicken bones and wire to represent the intense struggle of eating disorders. I also created several masks protruding out of the canvas, yelling out expletives. For my matric art exhibition, my works included pirouetting skeletons and a large painting of a ram's skull.

I was not immune to the growing gossip surrounding my work – apparently what I had created resembled something demonic, almost Satanic. This was despite putting both my rationale and art diary on display for all to read.

Therefore, this outrage over the work recently put out by a matric Grantleigh student is disappointing but frankly, not surprising. The school is located within a Christian and conservative area after all – anything dark or broody immediately sets off parental alarms under the guise of "concern".

Let me clarify that those shocked by this student's exhibition have the right to express their feelings and thoughts – art is meant to generate an extensive range of emotions. To invalidate their beliefs is harmful and I do believe in religious expression.

Nevertheless, the outrage expressed feels like that of a witch-hunt; eerily comparable to the Salem Trials in which religious folks persecuted and executed those who they saw as non-believers. It is an infamous tale of false accusations and religious extremism.

It is hard to not see the student as a bull's eye for other's prejudice and misunderstanding. They may remark that their outrage is directed toward the school and the art teacher, but at the end of the day, it is the student who bears the brunt of the scandal.

In fact, I have read a letter by a former Grantleigh head boy which equated the student's artwork to racism and homophobia. I appreciate his input except that it is one of false equivalence; creating an illogical and inconsistent fallacy where somehow the artwork could be deemed to be on the same level as institutional discrimination.

I think there is this idea that what the student has displayed is somehow "hate speech" (something that would often result out of institutional discrimination) but I disagree. For art like this to be hate speech it must have a clear intention to (a) be hurtful, (b) be harmful or incite harm, or (c) promote or propagate hatred. Yet, anyone who has taken the time to read this artwork's rationale would understand its artistic creativity and that, not once, the student EVER advocated hatred that constitutes the incitement to cause harm.

Artistic and creative expression, as well as academic study, are specifically protected from being construed as hate speech where the incitement to cause harm does not exist.

Yes, I understand that those images are uncomfortable to look at. They may stir up feelings of anger, confusion and hurt; that they may be harmful to younger audiences gazing upon the pieces for the first time. But, I argue, sheltering differing ideas is a dangerous practice. Is it not dangerous to raise naïve beings who do not look beyond the surface of such matters and avoid critically engaging with it altogether?

You cannot always protect others from discomfort but you can use it as an opportunity to create a healthy and comprehensive discussion about our differing values, beliefs and norms.

If anything, I ask others to stop placing a target on the student's back and to open their minds. To be willing to engage in these difficult conversations and to not interact with the world around us on such a superficial level. Imagine if the father, who filmed the exhibition, had decided to speak to the student rather than exposing him to public defamation and harm. Would something more fruitful, more educational have taken place? I think so.

Regardless of what I say, I know that there are many who will disagree with me. But at least I can fall asleep peacefully knowing that I was not part of this horrific and harmful mob mentality. Can you?

- Solomons is a Mandela Rhodes scholar currently pursuing a Master's degree in Psychology at the University of Cape Town. She was also selected as one of Africa's Bright Young Minds for her extensive volunteering efforts as well as her push towards equality in the mental healthcare system. She considers herself to be a human rights activist and spends her time creating platforms for others to thrive and succeed. 

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