by Leroy Payne
Access to higher education, especially in a South African context, is riddled with exclusionary practices and policies. Rhodes University, founded in 1904, is no exception. Although the overt markers of inclusion and exclusion might have changed – from race and gender to financial affluency and, most recently, vaccination mandates – it is apparent that some students have always been more welcome than others.
(de)constructing (in)access brings into proximity two buildings on the Rhodes University campus which, implicitly or explicitly, foreground questions of access. The first is the Provost, constructed in the 1830s as a military prison and one of the earliest examples of a panopticon. The second, constructed approximately a century later, is the Rhodes University Clock Tower – essentially the seat of university leadership, housing the offices of the VC, DVCs and notable Directors. Both structures cite colonialism in design and function, having been hewn from rocks and other building materials excavated from the surrounding earth. Together, these rocks form the foundations, walls, and ideologies that culminate in the physical and metaphorical institution of higher education.
The installation cites these two structures as miniature models, meticulously replicated in stone masonry (using stones foraged from the campus), but without doors or windows. The act of (re)construction alludes to the malleability of history: in the void left by forgotten narratives, an ex-prison can become a coffee shop. The Clock Tower has housed a succession of university leaders over the decades, each a harbinger of vast ideological alterations. Regardless of the new or old narratives, the controlling of access seems as unchanged as the rocks that constitute these buildings.
As a counterpoint to the (doorless, windowless) models, a third work focuses specifically on the door beneath the Rhodes Clock Tower. Constructed using rocks and stones hand-selected from various locations in the Eastern Cape, the replica door was built (to scale) in an unfettered landscape. As such, the stones are bonded together and form a dislocated, impassable replica of the main entrance to the university… a worthless portal of sorts. In the destruction of the door glistens a tentative hope, for even stone structures are not impervious to ample force.