Chaos, Magma, and Pregnance
Exploring Symbolic Communication in Institutional Art Forms
Ingår i: Shadows in the Cave. Revisiting Mats Rosengren’s Doxology. Erik Bengtson, Karl Ekeman, Mirey Gorgis, Louise Schou Therkildsen & Alexander Stagnell (eds.), Retorikförlaget 2022.
Artikel s 161-176
Wincharles Coker is Senior Lecturer in Rhetoric and Critical Communication at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. 0000-0001-7350-5040
The question I attempt to grapple with in this essay is this: if art forms could talk, what stories would they tell? I pose this question because the decision to erect a public statue, for example, could, beyond its aesthetic, educational, cultural, or economic significance, also have grave political consequences. The Confederate Statues continue to generate bipartisan discourses in American politics. In a homologous way, The Statue of Peace, an artifact erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Korea to memorialize the Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery during Japan’s colonial occupation of the nation, resulted in bilateral tensions between the two sovereign states. Clearly, the idea of mounting statues is ideologically motivated. In December, 2018, faculty and students at Ghana’s premier university, University of Ghana, celebrated the felling of the statue of Mahatma Ghandi, India’s famed independence leader, unveiled by India’s former President Pranab Mukherjee. The protesters had convincingly argued, two years prior, that the presence of the statue communicated ideas that were reflective of the university’s and, by extension, the nation’s endorsement of racism toward Black Africans. The protesters showed strong reservations toward the erection of the statue because, in their estimation, the young Ghandi once intimated that Black South Africans were inferior as evidenced in his early writings. Indeed, what happened on the University of Ghana campus, we may speculate, was simply the spiralling effect of South Africa’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, which started by student activist Chumani Maxwele, and eventuated in the pulling down of the statue of British-born imperialist Cecil Rhodes, at the University of Cape Town. The prime objective of the student-demonstrators was to bring to an end an era of Eurocentric idealisms, and ultimately usher in a new age of a decolonized curriculum and pedagogy that herald alternative ways of knowing, particularly one that promotes Afrocentric education since the birth of South Africa’s democracy in 1994.
Appearing as monuments or architectural decorations, statues, at their most reducible function, one may note, are representational. They are forms of discourse between the artist and the public raised to inspire citizens and to promote their identity as part of a community, to remember, and celebrate important events. As three-dimensional, free-standing aesthetic sculptures of a person, an animal or an event, normally full length, as opposed to a bust made of materials like clay, marble, resin, bronze, porcelain, fibre glass, statues are usually set on display at locations—mostly outdoors—where the public can access them. Like monuments, they express all of those human artifacts, actions, or ideas that have urgent meaning for people in the present. Statues are also memorialist in function; they remind viewers of specific individuals or events. While representing selective historical narratives, they can inculcate specific conceptions of the present and encourage future possibilities. As such, they become essential for the articulation of the politics of memory and identity through which the political élite set their agenda and legitimate political power. However, once erected, public art forms become social property and users can reinterpret them in ways that are different or contrary to the intentions of the designers. It is also important to stress that public commemorative arts such as statues and monuments are sites for the reproduction of authority and control. The images viewers see in the public spaces, such as on university campuses tend to shape their attitudes and ultimately control their conduct in such spaces. In other words, material rhetoric enables governmentality. As Green puts it, “Rhetoric makes possible the ability to judge and plan reality in order to police a population.” For while scholars of cybernetics would say that the statues are media forms of mind control, semioticians might as well intimate that the statues interpellate. That is, we are called upon to reflect on the intentions and functions of still life in ways that offer us a kind of education.
Thus far, I have shown that research on public arts is not in its nascent stage. For instance, the large body of works on African visual heritage, symbology, and sculptural traditions, which gathered momentum during the 20th century, has been documented in the anthropological literature and art studies, underscoring the mammoth role of context in conveying the multiplexity of meaning of African art forms. Researchers have explored how public arts promote value systems in many African cultures, Ghana included. Scholars have explored, inter alia, issues of social exclusion; the nexus between public arts and public controversy, anti-colonial resistance, memory, and identity politics in cultures like Cameroon, Namibia, and, in particular, South Africa apropos the subjects of post-Apartheid, ongoing racism. Clearly, the literature shows a gaping hole exists in rhetorical studies concerning African visual art forms.
An Urgent Case for a Rhetorical Study of Institutional Art Forms
My aim in this essay is to theorize the institutional uptake of “rhetoric as a technology of deliberation” in the public. Here, I seek to deconstruct the materialist rhetoric of institutional statues by focusing on the chaos they express. I use the term “chaos” to refer to the tensions, counter-poises, oppositions, and antitheses contained in the statues I will examine. The type of chaos, I will examine, is not the least surprising because texts, such as statues, are expected to have polysemous meanings. My idea of chaos draws inspiration from Rosengren’s concept of magma, a term he borrows from Castoriadis to make sense of the conception of how and of what our world is. For Rosengren magma brings into focus the idea that all things are “in constant motion interacting, folding into each other just to disengage again; one magma may include other magmas which can be linked to the multitude of sensemaking included in the magma of societal imaginary significations.” According to him, magma is the appropriate term to use when talking about the stuff that societies are made of. His bon mot to animate this idea is being downstream to emphasize the heteronomous notion of history and time as flowing irrevocably, independently. This means that, for Rosengren, “nothing is meaningful, in and for itself, but only in relation to persons, to language, to history, to society.” His doxological approach emphasizes the relevance of context in the sense-making process. Drawing on Derrida’s idea of différance, he writes:
No point of view, no opinion or statement is produced in a void, but always conditioned by what was there before. In a very general sense, our ever-changing contexts are characterized by always already being downstream in relation to what on before. From this position, we invent, investigate, create, produce, reproduce the contexts we need in our constant.
Thus, one aspect of sense-making identified by Rosengren is of significance to me here: the importance of context in determining and interpreting images. The interpretation of an image, according to Rosengren, involves three processes, viz., contextualizing, adapting, and adjusting. However, he adds that this perception is so fast that it is often ignored. Referencing Empedocles, he urges us to develop our light of understanding images and figures in order not to “see without seeing.” This, he noted, is useful for making sense of an image and avoiding what he terms as “visual noise”.
Let me illustrate this point. The dominant reading of the statue at the University Avenue Roundabout at a Ghanaian public university (see Image 2) fundamentally showcases that knowledge is light, and that it opens doors. Yet, a magmatic reading of this statue reveals a contradictory imaginary signification. For instance, the statue heralds the theme of Enlightenment and Eurocentric idealism. It is generally known that the dialectic of enlightenment, as was conceived, was, in fact, a mass deception as it did not rescue the West from damnation. We may add that Enlightenment was the ideological basis upon which the West colonized and occupied Africa. The question, then, is: how do we deal with these magmas of meanings coming from the symbology of a single art form?
To answer this question, I will weave my visual rhetorical criticism of the statues with the lived experiences of perceivers on the university campus. My inquiry is motivated by Biesecker and Lucaites’s claim that the subject of rhetoric, in the twentieth century, has shifted from that of the humanist orator of the ancient Greek polis to symbolic structures more generally, thereby encouraging further research in rhetoric as a material process and not just rhetoric for behavioural change. My goal is to encourage rhetorical and communication scholars to ask questions of not just what images represent, but more importantly, how the images coproduce the world. Following the objective of Bost and Greene, I aim to address “how institutions put rhetorical form and purpose to govern populations.” In doing so, my ultimate purpose is to examine the chaos, magmas, and symbolic pregnance contained in the material rhetoric of public statues mounted by managements of public institutions.
My understanding of symbolic pregnance is significantly shaped by Rosengren’s perception theory as found in the works of German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. The concept of symbolic pregnance was first used by Cassirer in the third volume of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms from 1929. Symbolic pregnance offers a detailed discussion of sense-making by focusing on symbolic forms, which Rosengren defines “as the matter out of which the world is made.” This means that he understands that “Cassirer’s symbolic pregnance is the precondition for all representation and sensemaking,” and, thus, presents us with a theory on the meaning of meaning. Cassirer personally referred to symbolic pregnance as:
the way in which a perception as a sensory experience contains at the same time a certain non-intuitive meaning that it immediately and concretely represents. Here we are not dealing with bare perceptive data, on which some kind of apperceptive acts are later grafted, through which they are interpreted, judged, transformed. Rather, it is perception itself which by virtue of its own immanent organization, takes on a kind of spiritual articulation – which being ordered in itself, also belong to a determinate order of meaning.
This explanation, according to Rosengren, highlights three important ideas: pregnance, the immanent organization of perception, and articulation. At its most basic, it expresses the idea of giving birth, and so denotes the unlimited possibility of experiences the viewer may apperceive. So construed, pregnance may refer to the way in which a perception as a sensory experience contains at the same time a certain non-intuitive meaning that it immediately and concretely represents. But Rosengren cautions us that there is no experience qua experience that exists in-and-for-itself because “it is always an experience of something.” This means that Cassirer, from the way Rosengren explicates him, is opposed to the idea of a positivistic, no less than a rationalistic system of identifying the unambiguous meanings of signs and symbols emanating from experience. In other words, experience exists in articulation. From the way I see it, each and every experience must be incorporated in one symbolic form or another and, thus, there cannot be any experience that is not always already meaningful within some symbolic form. In Rosengren’s eyes, experience is, for the most part, a kind of mental articulation, interpretation, the incessant integration and interpenetration of radical imagination that enables social actors to interpret and judge raw perceptive data in order to make sense of the experience. Eventually, this promotes an immanent organization of the thing perceived by which way human agents are capable of making sense of “an incessant upsurge of meaning” between the sign and the signified, the symbol and what it symbolizes. Rosengren writes:
The basic line is that perception as well as experience always starts from what is already there. Every experience, every meaningful impression and every articulation implies a new structuring, a new order, but a novelty that is always heavily dependent on, or, if you prefer, conditioned by what was there before.
Ultimately, I conceive of symbolic pregnance as an attempt to articulate the multiplexity of meanings contained in symbolic forms available in a field of vision. In the context of this study, the field of vision is a Ghanaian public university.
Institutional Context, Data, and Study Methods
The statues used in this study are all erected at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), Ghana. UCC is the topmost ranked university in Ghana and in the West African sub-region, and is among the top five in Africa, according to the 2022 Times Higher Education World Universities Rankings. Located within 500 meters from the Atlantic Ocean, the University is one of the rare sea front universities in the world, and is situated in the ancient city of Cape Coast. Its total student population is 74, 720 who read diverse academic programmes housed in four colleges, viz., College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences; College of Health and Allied Sciences; College of Humanities and Legal Studies; and College of Distance Education. UCC is located at both the North and South campuses that are home to, according to a publication by the Directorate of Public Affairs of the University, a dozen of impressive-looking public sculptures such as monuments, statues, and murals. I have classified the statues at UCC into two. The first set comprises statues mounted at proximal spaces at the University Avenue Roundabout; the Old Administration Block; Faculty of Science Building and Quadrangle; and Old Library Building. The second set is situated at the various halls of residence, and may have been mounted by the management of the halls and/or student governments. Following Guillory, I elected to focus on the former set based on the following criteria: the significant location of the statue, the value of the statue, its visual significance as well as perceivers’ sensual experience of the statue. I also expressed special interest in this type of statues because they evoke pride in the rich African culture. Moreover, my insider knowledge as a member of faculty at UCC proved useful in understanding that the statues were officially approved and erected by the university central management acting in concert with the university council, and, therefore, could go a long way to reveal a lot about the logic of the university apropos the subject.
Using a reflexive interview method, I also sought to arrive at the Verstehen of perceivers of the statues through a fairly multi-stage sampling strategy. The sample size, which was composed of 40 participants, comprised 12 undergraduate male and 12 female students accidentally sampled on the campus, 8 teaching assistants conveniently sampled at the Department of Communication Studies, 10 lecturers with expertise in the arts purposively selected at the Faculty of Arts, and 4 staff of the Directorate of Public Affairs of the University. Guided by deontological ethics of care and duty, my teaching assistants and I engaged interviewees to share their lived experience of the symbology and representations of the statues as well as their meanings for the institutional ethos, vision, and mission of the university. But ultimately, I assumed a reflexive researcher-as-the-instrument posture just so I could critically reflect on both my analysis of the statues as well as the interview transcripts.
The statues were examined from a semiotically-focused rhetorical analysis. Semiotics is useful for understanding the dialogicity of meanings of monuments between designers’ and users’ interpretations. Analyzing the statues from a semiotic perspective is also important for exploring how viewers and communities differently interpret monuments. This is because the meanings a viewer attaches to monuments are largely magmatic and have varied imaginary social significations. Their interpretations are also contingent on the cultural context within which the monuments are erected. Let us now turn our attention to a rhetorical analysis of the selected the statues located at the University of Cape Coast.
Exploring Chaos, Magmas, and Symbolic Pregnance in Institutional Statues
The first statue to begin with is the Vision of Excellence. The black colossal, caricature-like figure boldly lifting a white bird stands in front of the old Administration Building of the University. Located on a hilly land, it is conspicuous, and greets all: management, staff, students, guests.
Image 1: Vision of Excellence, all photographs by research assistants, January, 2022
The Vision of Excellence is, thus, a notable symbol of the University. The white bird presents magmatic arguments of peace, equanimity, and progress. The bird brings to mind the coat of arms of the University, where also a bird motif can be seen, symbolising strength, determination, and excellence. The white bird, either a dove or an eagle, connotes a sense of looking into the prosperous future. But situated in the traditional home of the Fante of Oguaa (Cape Coast), we may as well say that the symbology of the bird resonates with the totems of traditional leaders, and so represents the community and its spiritual qualities. The statue has a historic significance (See Mensah for the values of monuments in Cape Coast).
A critical analysis of the statue, however, reveals a rather interesting signification that the designers of the figure may not have thought of. Let us focus on the use of chroma (color) in the design for a moment. Here, we are confronted with a dark seemingly limping man lifting in the heavens a white bird. What other significations come up from this scenery? First of all, I see it as a mechanical reproduction of the legend of biblical Noah seeking refuge after the floods in Genesis 8: 7. In other words, the statue’s aura, to steal Benjamin’s elegant term, is pregnant with a topos concerning the desire of management to make teaching and learning at UCC lead students to safe havens. As John, a research participant, noted, “I see it to be a stepping stone, something like a cliff to project one to the world”. For Akosua, the statue should “lead you to your dreams or what you want to become in the future.”
Yet, I cannot fail to see that the statue reifies a Christian trope. Or rather, the statue positions the University as pro-Eurocentric with its underlying philosophy not fundamentally anchored on Afrocentrism. As a matter of fact, it appears to me that the dominant philosophy operating at the University of Cape Coast is putatively Eurocentric. Let us explore this idea further by examining the next statue: The Man with the Blazing Torch.
Image 2: The Man with the Lit Torch. January, 2022
An obviously imposing figure composed of cement and fine polish, The Man with the Lit Torch stands tall at the Graeco Roundabout on the University Avenue Road of the South Campus. It is a male figure wrapped in a traditional cloth, peacefully reading a book and holding what apparently looks like a staff. The argument presented in this art form is the status the University accords knowledge by showcasing a handy book. The cement figure is whitish in elegance in the style of marble sculptures of ancient Greece –a reference to the historical roots of the European scholarly traditions. Turkson and Doku note that the figure’s exaggerated features, however, are distinguishably African, referring to the imagery of West African folk art, and that the statue is a good example of merging traditions and cross-cultural discourse. To speak like Rosengren, however, one may note that this art form is magmatic and chaotic at the same time. To be sure, the object The Man is grabbing is symbolically pregnant. In fact, I may argue that what The Man is holding in this image is a lit torch directly aiding him to read the book. My critical hermeneutic of this art form is not forced: on the contrary, it ties up with the idea that reading (or rather literacy—the light of the race, to wit) opens one’s understanding. To put it crudely, reading brings about enlightenment. Seen this way, my oppositional decoding vis-à-vis the preferred reading of the statue as done by Turkson and Doku, then, goes to foreground my initial stasis: that is, the idea that much of the operational philosophy of the University of Cape Coast is Eurocentric. I am particularly concerned with the logic of Enlightenment contained in The Man with the Lit Torch because, as I have remarked early on, Enlightenment first pencilled by Descartes and its emphasis on the cogito, became a Leviathan that visited incalculable pillage on the African continent and its diverse peoples. My rhetorical analysis of the statue so far goes a long way to show that its pristine presence on the university campus is simply paradoxical and a regrettable aspect of its magmatic being. If the working assumption of Enlightenment in Africa was the desire to bring the African peoples out of darkness (e.g., Conrad’s exaggerated experiences of Africans in the Congo in Heart of Darkness) through formal education and religion, then, the continual presence of The Man with the Lit Torch, looking at it with Rosengren’s pair of eyes, is antithetical to the mission of the University because it, on the contrary, serves as a memorial to the torture the West inflicted on African peoples, condemning their ways of being, becoming, knowing. Enlightenment, thus, condemned alternative knowledges, desecrated African spirituality, and, therefore, cannot reflect the aspirations of the University’s founder, Kwame Nkrumah, and, largely, the vision of Africa. This statue cannot enable a remembering of a people’s dismembered histories.
Another chaos viewers may be confronted with is the level of pathos. A case in hand is the statue located near the Faculty of Science Complex.
Image 3: Success Involves Struggling. January, 2022
It is a grey painted female figure moulded in cement, carrying a toddler whom she attempts to breastfeed. The motif speaks of filiation between mother and child. The significations presented therein include excellence, independence, bravery. These values are foregrounded in the way a gladiator-like infant is struggling to suck milk from the mother’s breast while the other is shifting the breast away. As one student observer noted, “The image tells us that when you come to the university, your parents wouldn’t be there with you so every decision you take, there are consequences to it”. Notice how the baby who is being fed reaches forth for the breast which is held at a distance from its thirsty lips by the mother. The obvious societal imaginary of this figure is that although education and knowledge can be as nourishing as breast milk to an infant, one must “strive to the top” to attain it. A participant remarked that the meaning being expressed in the statue is that the university “won’t spoon-feed you,” and that one should struggle to receive quality education as well as “struggle to build one’s personality”.
Thus, at its basic, this public art carries a palimpsest of significations. The first that immediately comes to my mind is its informational value. I see this statue as a cybernetic medium transmitting the message of the necessity of struggle to succeed in life to its target audience: the student body. Kwabena, an interviewee, noted, “It tries to communicate that that even though the university seeks to impact knowledge and skills to students, on the surface, there is the need for students to strive hard and get the impact the university wants to give them. Another thing the statue does is that it promotes the cultural value of discipline. The ethic of not taking anything for granted is, thus, conspicuously foregrounded here.
But I cannot fail to read the many counterpoises, contradictions, and I hesitate to add, chaos expressed by the aura of this public statue. The fundamental contrarian argument expressed therein is that the statue exudes a pathos of fear. “The art is telling us that UCC is extremely difficult so you need to strive hard to make it,” explained Austin, an interviewee. In fact, this oppositional deconstruction of the statue was commonly expressed by a number of the research participants. The reading, thus, goes to explain a chaos of interpretation for although the statue is pregnant with positive values, the statue is a symbol of repressive power and control. The statue could, thus, be perceived as a panoptic machine or a gubernatorial apparatus that whips students in check. The statue disciplines at the same time it punishes. Thus, being termed “a wicked mother” by one of the research participants, the statue seems to be saying thus: “You’d better study hard, or there’ll be consequences.” It is one of the subliminal, taken-for-granted communications of the statue. The following quote elucidates Adjoa’s lived experience concerning the subject of fear:
I have heard many views about this statue. Most of the students have some kind of negative connotation about it. Some say instead of looking at it in the positive light the university serves as a mother in terms of upbringing. People see it that no mother would logically make her child to stretch to get breast milk; therefore, it makes the university to be seen as a wicked institution.
The seeming insouciant nature of the university, expressed by the symbology of the statue, is again echoed by the words of Akwesi, a third-year sociology student:
When I first came to level 100, I had the misconception that UCC is hard, and people were using this statue as a point of reference. They would say that a nursing mother will naturally give the breast to the baby, but then this statue is wicked because the university is wicked. This is because she is pulling the breast away from the child and watching the child struggle to get it. It supports that misconception that UCC is a though place.
These magmatic, symbolic significations are reinforced in a homologous two life-size figure in a fountain found at the North Campus of the University. It is in between two
halls of residence: Adehye Hall, a female residential facility and Atlantic Hall, a co-gender residential facility.
Image 4: Ato and his Mother, January, 2022
Informally labelled Ato and his Mother, it is a young woman wearing traditional beads carrying a pot, and is reaching her hand for Ato (an Akan name given to a male born on Saturday) who has dropped his football on the ground. The symbol fundamentally expresses conflict of interest for both mother and child. Mother is conflicted in her vision of progress and her filial love for a wayward son. Ato is equally conflicted between his immediate passion (depicted in the ball), and his attention to his Mother. According to Gabby, an interviewee, the statue in Image 4 teaches the values of survival and defiance. The liminal space between mother and child, in this context, is the main signification. In other words, there is a space where knowledge and immediate gratifications depart. The statue expresses a lifelong lesson to live by, which the unrepentant student may find as scary all the same.
The value of success is, thus, magmatically represented. That is to say, the statue explains that knowledge is the foundation for making right choices to succeed in life. This basic message is expressed in our final example (see Image 5).
This art form is erected at the Faculty of Science Quadrangle at the North campus of the University of Cape Coast. It is another gracefull, white-painted female figure whose features are exaggerated and resemble the carved images of Ghanaian folk artists. She carries a jar on top of her head. This everyday life scene, Turkson and Doku say, is popular in African art as well as in the classical European art where water often is the symbol of life. Here is what one of my participants said concerning the interpretation of this statue:
I see the university as an institution that helps people to pursue their career or dreams. We come here for training and they are doing their part of molding students. So, students also have a part to play in order to make them better.
It has become clear by now that there is a fixation on the woman figure in the design of art forms on the UCC campus. I am convinced that it is an attempt to anthropomorphize it with the feminine attributes of love, compassion, and care. Yet, I have shown that the femininity of the university as expressed in Images 3, 4, and 5 is inchoate, incongruous, and paradoxical. The institution cannot be seen as communicating the ideals of love, passion, and care, and at the same time be sending the message of fear to its major stakeholders: the students. This may lead us to claim that the materialist rhetoric of institutional art forms sometimes tends to be magmatic, pregnant, chaotic.
In Lieu of Conclusion
The task I set out for myself in this essay was simple: I purposed to tell the mundane, but taken-for-granted stories in the bellies of institutional statues located on the campus of a university. My analysis unearthed a staggering revelation. That is, rather than clearly confirm the values, mission, and vision of the university, the statues posit an a priori contrarian view that expresses a great deal of chaos in the material design of the public art forms. To be sure, the images are symbolically pregnant with topoi of colonization, oppressive power, and control. Essentially, I have sought to contribute to ongoing research on the rhetoricity of materiality. That is to say, the non-human other ‘speaks,’ and is also political.
Clearly, the discussions I have set in motion are certainly by no means conclusive. The study adds to research on the interface between rhetoric and doxa, and decoloniality. For instance, the material rhetoric of public spaces of learning need to show strong commitment to epistemic delinking in order to assert new ways of thinking and doing. There is also a growing body of research on the nexus between rhetoric, heritage, and art studies. As scholars reflect on the need to develop universal theories, it is my hope that they find engagement with material rhetoric rewarding. In terms of praxis, I suggest that managers of public institutions take a closer look at engaging in anastylosis of monuments, and public arts in order to deal with the negative public communications or stories they tell viewers.
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I express gratitude to the anonymous reviewers and Alexander Stagnell, Erik Bengston and Louise Therkildsen, editors of the volume, for their support in shaping this project. I am also grateful to the staff at the Directorate of Public Affairs of the University of Cape Coast for their support in the conceptualization of the study. Thanks also go to my teaching assistants, Winifred Abakah and Verona Godwyll, for their assistance in gathering data for the project.