Lauren Alexander: An Elephant in the Room

Advisor / tutor: Doreen Mende

Independent reviewer: Damir Arsenijevic

Arnhem, June 2011


An Elephant in the Room [1]

This thesis is based on journal fragments, written from memory by artist, Lauren Alexander, detailing her experience of a collaborative research project which took place in Soweto, Johannesburg from January until March 2011. The project entitled Cardboard Monument, executed in collaboration with Funda Community Art Centre, Soweto investigates the community called Kliptown, currently situated around a recently built monument called the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication.[2] The recalling of scenarios from memory from the duration of the two month on-site project, and re-articulation with the aid of philosophical and theoretical texts, this thesis aims to reformulate a position for the artist, and function as a starting point for her emerging practice.


[1] "Elephant in the room" is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss.
[2] The Walter Sisulu Square is large in size and was very expensive to build. For this reason it is often referred to by local residents of Kliptown as a “White Elephant”. An expression, which means that an object ‘s cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.


This thesis offers a valuable documentation, reflection of and intervention into two major fields: 1. the political economy of memory and memorialization and 2. the politics of knowledge production. The intervention, in the shape of a temporal installation in the shape of the Cardboard Monument, bespeaks of the artistic urgency to engage with the historical unconscious that rests on the double silencing of a witness: marginalisation and silencing carried out by the official history and silence of the witness her/himself. In doing so, the thesis strives to open up an autonomous space for a discussion of how injustice and injury is further perpetrated and more importantly how amnesia and forgetting are mobilised by political projects in the foreclosure of proper political moments. Very valuable and instructive in this thesis is the point when the universality of political demands of the Freedom Charter is still operative but how the dominant ideology invites us to maintain a cynical distance in relation to these demands. The use of theory in the thesis is able and engaged albeit staying on the level of recognition. My recommendation to the artist would be to continue reflecting further on the properly political dimension of the demand to remember surrounding this much-needed piece of art. Whilst Bhabha and Foucault are obvious choices, fruitful avenues of exploration would be to consult feminist scholarship, critique of transitional justice and huge body of work on memory and trauma. The thesis acts as the stimulus and platform for a new form of public engagement with issues whose impact is cultural, political, economic, and at the same time deeply personal.

 Dr Damir Arsenijevic is a critic, theorist, scholar, and translator working in the fields of cultural, gender, and literary studies. Member of the artistic-theory Grupa Spomenik (Belgrade, Tuzla, Rijeka, Berlin, San Francisco) and one of the founders of the international platform Yugoslav Studies.