Inspired by a dream, this photograph became a symbol for a transformative protest movement


Editor’s Note: In Snap, we look at the power of a single photograph, chronicling stories about how both modern and historical images have been made.

Nine years ago, Sethembile Msezane stepped on top of a plinth, wearing a black body suit and stiletto heels, her arms adorned with wings she fashioned out of wood, velvet, and hair. Behind her, a statue of a man can be seen being lifted in the air. “Chapungu — The Day Rhodes Fell” has since become an iconic photograph, capturing the spirit of the #RhodesMustFall movement which led to the removal of 19th century colonist Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town.

Msezane was a studying for a Master’s degree in Fine Arts at the university during the protests, which saw students call for the Briton’s statue to come down, citing his legacy as being tainted with racism.

“There is no way I could have conceptualized that moment and the way things unfolded on that day,” said Msezane, speaking to CNN from Cape Town. Her performance, and the resulting image — which has come to serve as a symbol for the historic day — was born from a recurring dream that haunted her around the time the protest movement began.

Artist Sethembile Msezane on a plinth in front of the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. Its removal was the culmination of a month of protests by students. - Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

Artist Sethembile Msezane on a plinth in front of the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. Its removal was the culmination of a month of protests by students. – Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

The dreams centred around “Chapungu,” a sacred Zimbabwean bateleur eagle who Msezane embodied atop the plinth with her wings.

Eight of the birds — which hold great spiritual value for the people of Zimbabwe — were immortalised in green-gray soapstone in the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe. As the site fell into disrepair, six were subsequently looted, and in the 1800s, one statue of Chapungu was given to Cecil Rhodes. While several have now been returned, to this day, it remains at Rhodes’ former home at the Groote Shuur estate in Cape Town, Msezane explained.

“There have been political calls for her to return home, but for some reason, these calls have been denied,” she said. “There is a mythological belief that until she is returned home, there will be social unrest in Zimbabwe.”

Msezane says that Chapungu, who is a totem of people’s hopes and aspirations in Zimbabwean society, was in collaboration with her consciousness on the day Rhodes fell. “She used my body as a vessel, and I accepted the call.”

Even after the sculpture of Rhodes had fallen, Msezane stayed atop her plinth for another 20-30 minutes. “It was important for (Chapungu) to be present so that she could be seen, so that we can begin to see ourselves in her — and not in our history of subjugation and dispossession. That we too have histories of abundance and ancestral knowledge.”

The image is currently on display in London as part of the South London Gallery and V&A Parasol Foundation’s exhibition “Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and the Art of Protest” which takes a journey through female-led resistance around the world, from the perils of illegal abortion in Chile, Poland, and the United States, to women-led protests in Iran and Bangladesh.

“Would I be pushed over?”

Creating the work took its toll. The Chapungu piece — which involved Msezane standing on the plinth in high heels on a hot day for nearly four hours — was “pretty strenuous,” she said. She would hold the wings strapped to her arms aloft for two minutes before having to rest for 10, then start again.

She was also afraid at the beginning. “When you make a work like that, you’re quite vulnerable,” she explained.

The statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was removed from South Africa's Cape Town University on April 9, 2015. - Schalk van Zuydam/AP

The statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was removed from South Africa’s Cape Town University on April 9, 2015. – Schalk van Zuydam/AP

“I was scared because what if the police come and take me away, while this very important historical occasion is happening? What would happen to me, having been taken away wearing a leotard and some stilettos? Would I be pushed over? Could I potentially hurt myself or die?”

Afterwards, she was shaking. Her limbs were tired, her feet painful and her vision blurred. “All I wanted were my clothes,” she says, of stepping off the plinth. “I just wanted to go home and take a bath.”

When the Chapungu work garnered so much international attention, Msezane continued on with her life and didn’t think much about it.

“I was still within the tension of what was happening,” she said, referencing the Rhodes movement and what would lead to the Fees Must Fall campaign. While her work was receiving acclaim, she was being targeted for her involvement with the movement.

“My work was being cited everywhere and it meant very little to me to be honest, when that was the reality I was living… the system still finds ways to oppress you, even though a work like that can give you a voice.”

Sometimes, she fears that the meaning of the piece is lost — with the focus being on Rhodes and not the symbol of Chapungu, who has “become a beacon of hope for many.”

For Msezane, the work has inspired her to think about how else we can help women around the world. She no longer performs “endurance works” like Chapungu, citing how taxing, dangerous, and emotional such they can be. Instead, she uses her art as a tool for change in other ways — such as by donating profits from the sales of her work to fund charitable endeavors (she has previously supported the Panzi Hospital in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which provides health care for over 80,000 women and girls who are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence).

Art was a calling

From a young age, Msezane was a creative at heart — expressing herself through poems, drawings, and dress, but she did not expect to become an artist.

Sethembile Msezane has performed other performance pieces like this titled "So Long a Letter," at the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal in 2016. - Sethembile Msezane

Sethembile Msezane has performed other performance pieces like this titled “So Long a Letter,” at the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal in 2016. – Sethembile Msezane

“I didn’t think that being an artist would be viable for me,” she explained. With encouragement from her aunt, she set off to study fine arts at the University of Cape Town — an experience which she describes as “very frustrating,” due to the curriculum’s Eurocentrism.

“I kept fumbling over concepts of Africans not being producers of their own work but being faceless and nameless.”

While observing Cape Town’s landscape and architecture, Msezane became inspired to think about what the city had to say about black women’s histories. “I found it to be quite barren of our stories,” Msezane told CNN.

This observation marked the start of her Public Holidays performance art series, when Msezane would use the day off from her job as an arts administrator to stage performances in the city.

“It became a task for me to re-insert some of the histories I was thinking about on political public holidays, in relation to colonial, male, European statues,” she said. She performed as Lady Liberty on Freedom Day, Rosie the Riveter on Worker’s Day. Not long after, Msezane left her day job and started practicing full-time as an artist. “It’s kind of how life panned out… it was a calling.”

Now, suspended from a ceiling in a south London gallery, Msezane’s image greets visitors and commands their immediate attention. “I want for them to walk in with a sense of wonder and to let that wonder take over their senses,” she said. “When they view the image, let them go where they need to.”

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