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Stephen Biko and the Torture Aesthetic


Stephen Biko’s death in South Africa in 1977 under the apartheidregime has become an iconic event for the global human-rightscommunity for whom he is an international symbol. In the aestheticrealm—in works of art in a wide variety of forms including poetry,drama, popular song, film, and visual arts—his memory has beenkept alive for over three decades. This essay focuses on three popular,transnational works of art that lay claim on global audiencesto participate in an idealized universal citizenship founded on anobjection to torture that is both the assumption and motivation fortheir art. Peter Gabriel’s 1980 song “Biko,” Richard Attenborough’s1987 film “Cry Freedom,” and Saira Essa and Charles Pillai’s 1985documentary play Steve Biko: The Inquest each in its own formalregister (song, film, play), memorializes torture to produce an iconographyof political martyrdom that I will call the torture aesthetic.Biko iconography stands here as a particularly potent example of alarger trend within aesthetic practices in which a historical exampleof brutality is invoked to activate audiences and to raise concernswithin human rights discourse itself.

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