Deconstructing Colonialism
various hardwoods, veneers, marquetry, and copper
80 x 44 x 29.5 in.
Private Collection

“There needs be no hesitation in affirming that Colonization, in the present state of the world, is the best affair of business in which the capital of an old and wealthy country can engage.”
[John Stuart Mill On Colonies and Colonization, 1848.]

“We acknowledge the suffering caused by colonialism and affirm that, wherever and whenever it occurred, it must be condemned and its reoccurrence prevented. We further regret that the effects and persistence of these structures and practices have been among the factors contributing to lasting social and economic inequalities in many parts of the world today.”
[From the Declaration adopted by the Third World Conference Against Racism, Durban, South Africa, 8 September 2001.]

This table tells the story of colonialism and how it has tried over centuries to suppress ethnic cultures by overlaying a level of “civilizing” authority and aesthetic.

Growing up as a white child in East London, a small town in colonial South Africa, I was “privileged” with an education at Selborne Primary School. The school was named for Lord Selborne, the Second Earl of Selborne from Hampshire, England, who served as British High Commissioner to the Cape from 1895 to 1907, before being appointed British Governor of the Transvaal. My privileged education at the Selborne School taught me to respect all things British, and to value the art and culture of the European people. In all my long six years at Selborne, I never heard or learned about the art and culture of the people of South Africa. So effective was my colonial education, that as far as I knew, the Xhosa people (living in the area around East London) had no culture, no art, and no dignity.

Left: Deconstructing Colonialism, 3/4 view. Right: Deconstructing Colonialism, skeleton view. (click to enlarge)

The top of the table has a marquetry of a grid: the linear squares representing the institutionalized discipline enforced by the colonial power, and the black color representing the shadow cast by the foreigners on the local society. Parts of the grid have begun to disintegrate, indicating that the colonial authority — because of its artificial nature — is always a precarious one. The grid is also blowing apart from within, revealing, on the one hand, the variety, richness, and uniqueness of the local culture which has for too long been suppressed, and on the other hand, the deep scars inflicted by colonialism. The design for this inner marquetry was inspired by the ceremonial Kuba cloths used by the Shoowa people of what is now known as Zaire.

Detail: Table top (click to enlarge)
The tabletop appears to be floating, free of any supporting structure. In this it resembles the colonies which were allegedly self governing. Both impressions are deceptive. The tabletop, in fact, rests on an elaborate structure which is largely hidden from view. So too, the colony is dependent on a complex, taken for granted, infrastructure of colonial control — military, legislative, judicial, regulatory, and educational. The legs represent the faceless schoolboys standing to attention — as we did everyday in assembly at Selborne Primary School — blindly honoring Lord Selborne and obediently singing the British Anthem. In place of the schoolboys’ faces, I have wedged the Selborne School shield — taken from Lord Selborne’s Coat of Arms — which was emblazoned on our school uniforms and which adorned the school’s entrance.

Underneath the table are two drawers, not visible from the top, but accessible to those who seek to look beneath the surface. Each drawer presents the reach of colonialism in graphic terms. One drawer shows how many of the world’s people have, at one time or another, lived under colonial rule. The other drawer depicts, in population and square miles, how so few and so little have exploited so many and so much.

In ending, I note that this description has been written in the language I was taught at Selborne Primary School — the Queen’s English — a language that has spread and sustained the reach and power of colonialism.

Left: Colonial Power drawer. Right: Extent of Colonialism drawer. (click on maps to enlarge)

Download the Deconstructing Colonialism brochure .pdf (3.5 MB)