Exploring the city

15 Mar 2019 - 15:45

Nathalie Viruly is an Honours in Curatorship student. As part of the honours programme she takes the core course Critical Thinking in Curatorship in which the students visit a different archive, collection or permanent exhibition within Cape Town every week. During these field-trips critical engagement with display practices is encouraged, often in order to look at how repositories of the past continue to affect the present. Last week the class went on a walking tour of the Cape Town city centre to activate parts of the city they may not have noticed before and explore its public art and monuments. Viruly writes on her experience of this below.


Cities are filled with movement but also moments of pause. Pouring out of buses, taxis and trains, transport becomes bipedal. There is a physicality to cities and their workforce. But not all bodies within the city move with a commuter-like brisk. Some lean against pillars, settle on stairs, have a cigarette standing, some take a break from work while others linger in the hope of kindness.

Walking around Cape Town, I became interested in ideas of movement and rest in relation to monuments and sites of heritage. Cape Town, given apartheid city planning, is made accessible to black bodies in exchange for their labour. After hours, these workers return to their designated homes, and Cape Town becomes a traditional museum - silent and spacious. I’m interested in the physicality of walking as a curatorial practice but also the act of resting. How do commuters engage with these public objects?

I wish to focus on two specific spaces that speak to this notion of rest. The Slave Monument on Church Square is the first. While its function is not rest related, various people use the eleven black granite blocks as seating. The granite slabs are low-lying, at sitting height, and not easily recognisable as a monument given the lack of imformation surrounding them. As we walked by I noticed a woman sitting on a block talking on the phone, and I wondered if it was ignorance, city planning or exhaustion that led to such an act. Was her rest an act of disruption to western monumental standards? Does her body reclaim the space and right to rest?

As we continued walking, we came across two memorial benches at Krotoa Place. The one bench was identical to that at the Castle of Good Hope. The other bench is part of the RockGirl collective - an initiative that has placed over 50 benches in busy areas as safe spaces for women. A third bench was destroyed in 2015 by Khoisan activists who found it disrespectful to sit on a historical figure’s face. These same activists criticised the wooden bench at the Castle to which management responded - "It’s a marker, a memorial of her final resting place and a place for people to sit next to and honour her. It is not meant to be sat on,” ( February, 2016).

This statement is confusing given that memorial benches are premised on the notion of pause and reflection. One could argue that a bench counters the traditional, western form of memorialisation in ostentatious bronze. But I’m left thinking about the appropriateness of these benches as memorials for historical women who are already misunderstood and shadowed in society.

I’m intrigued by the idea of monuments acting as intentional and unintentional seats given the politics of sitting and standardised mourning etiquette. Imposing one's body on a memorial is often thought to be disrespectful, yet these memorials are placed in busy places with little other public seating. City planners and heritage practitioners’ curatorial insensitivity towards contemporary workers alters the function of these spaces.

Perhaps using historical women as a place of rest is empowering for present labouring bodies, but it also buys into binary notions of women as emotional labourers and carers. Monuments that represent women in these static, domestic, methods fail to show the dynamism of women. They limit women to passive, unclear, objects. While they offer rest, why must women, even in memoriam, hold and comfort bodies?



Reference List:

February, S. 2016.Khoisan Chief’s Unhappy Over Bankie Honour. Daily Voice. 24 August.


Grillo, I. & Brauner, M. n.d. Walking as a Form of Critical Curating. Institution As Medium. Curating As Institutional Critique? 8(11): 15-18.


Words and photography by Nathalie Viruly.