Oxford University Press Southern Africa exploits actor.

29 Jul

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For centuries, artists, actors, singers ​, ​and performers have been subjected to all forms of exploitation​n. When I hear of a story of how Oxford University Press Southern Africa has used an image of an artist without his permission and have capitalized​ from the use of the image, I had to share the journey and see how we can assist him.

I met Vaneshran Arumugam whilst studying at Wits University, where we both studied Dramatic art. After graduation Vaneshran went onto to excel is his studies and career, both on the continent​ and globally​​.

Who is Vaneshran Arumugam?
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Vaneshran is an independent artist and advocate for the role of the Arts in social justice through Storytelling in its many formats. Alongside achieving degrees  from Wits, UCT and Columbia University to the Masters level Vaneshran has created and played various characters that have enjoyed great success with audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds across South Africa, being well known for his television roles in SOS, Suburban Bliss, Scandal and Streaks.  His work in television during South Africa’s early democracy until now has meant challenging boundaries and demanding more space for black and marginalised artists to play lead roles, to co-write and to produce and so that even those very categories may be interrogated.
Through his work with this philosophy, which included building a theatre and community venue in District Six, he was awarded a Ford Fellowship and afforded a unique MA study at major institutions. Some of Vaneshran’s traditional theatre roles include  Hamlet, which he has played twice in noteworthy productions at the Wits theatre in 1999  and in 2006 for the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Dame Janet Suzman, for their Complete Works Festival.
Vaneshran’s work as a practitioner and researcher in the field of Consciousness and Performance earned him a Fulbright Scholarship in 2013, which based him at St Francis College in New York City, developing his own curriculum and teaching and performing at various institutions across Manhattan, including designing and facilitating an experiential arts programme for learners with Special Needs through the Hungerford Institute. In 2011 Vaneshran presented his work at the World Conference of Consciousness in Performance, Theatre, Literature and the Arts at Lincoln University in the United Kingdom in collaboration with writer and educator, Professor Kriben Pillay from the University of Kwazulu Natal.

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The facts: This is what he had to say:

In 2016 I was informed by a cousin teaching high school English that I was on the cover of the Othello textbook they (and the entire province) were using. I went online and found that indeed I was on the cover of that textbook and also a study guide published by Oxford University Press Southern Africa. The production was a major project of my MA output in 2008 and was directed by my supervisor, Geoff Hyland, and staged (semi professionally) at the Baxter theatre. A photographer, a ​personal friend to Geoff, was asked to take some photos for us during our final rehearsals. No waivers were ever signed and the photos were not for any use but our own as cast and crew who were all students of mine and Geoff’s in undergrad Drama at UCT.
I immediately wrote to Oxford University Press to inform them that they couldn’t possibly have permission for the use of the photo because no waiver was ever signed. 

A few years before I was approached by Bedford St Martins (USA) to please give permission for the use of my image on their newest edition of the well-respected Bedford Shakespeare. They were unable to go into print without my permission and went to some lengths to procure it, offering me an apologetic token sum and begged that I consider the educational value of the volume. I naturally accepted their offer and the great respect they were affording my portrayal of Hamlet (from the 2006 play that we performed at Stratford upon Avon for the RSC Complete Works festival). So I had some idea of what might be expected from publishers wanting to use my face in character on their books…or so I thought.

When I wrote to Oxford University Press Southern Africa​ and stated my case their response was that they would have to verify the matter and that they would take it very seriously. I then received a call from their CEO who offered to meet to discuss. I met with Steve Cilliers where I discovered that their books with my portrayal of Othello on the cover had been in print for 7 years already and had run through 14 impressions​ and that they had bought the image from a stock library (and I never signed any waiver for that to even be possible). In an email correspondence that followed between Cilliers and myself I made a calculation based on the token that Bedford paid for my image (with my permission) and arrived at a figure which I then proposed we could reduce to a fraction thereof if Oxford University Press Southern Africa were to publicly remedy the situation by acknowledging my contribution to education materials and perhaps enter into an engagement around education and Shakespeare. This offer was refused and I was formally asked do sign a standard waiver to the rights to my image with the attached remuneration of R 2000. I refused and warned that I would not be letting the matter go, although I would need proper support to apply pressure to have them rectify the situation. Oxford University Press Southern Africa came to the end of the 7/8 year run of that cover shortly after that and no remuneration was ever paid nor any permission ever given…although the books are still in circulation. I believe they were distributed all over SADC region, and possibly farther afield.

In the case of Cambridge University Press and Hamlet, I only found out last year that they have been using an image of me playing Hamlet ( the very same image that Bedford had used) since 2014, on the cover of their textbooks In countries like Tasmania and Australia and who knows where else, since I have not made any contact with them or their representatives. I can confirm that I never gave any permissions for any photographs to be used outside of publicity for the staging of our play at the RSC festival and the Bedford St Martin’s needing my permission to go into print confirms this. Cambridge University Press has made no attempt to contact me about this and i have been advised that they too obtained the rights to the photo from a stock library. 

My argument is that I was a working actor, deriving my livelihood from my image, well before either of these huge corporate entities decided to use the respective images to no doubt earn lots of monies in territories where my face garnered their publications good access…ie brown territories in the global South.  But no attempt was made to pay my life work any regard or respect because somehow the photos found their way into stock libraries. Could the same have happened if I were white or famous? How is the Baxter Theatre responsible, since they were the producing entity of both plays concerned. And if the law protects these corporations from literally making money on the back of my hard work (it takes a lot of it to not only play Shakespeare’s two most demanding roles but then to do it at the level and the critical success I have managed -collaboratively- is no mean feat).
They would not have and did not use a poor, uninteresting or visually boring portrayal of the roles to adorn their covers. And yet I was neither made aware that they were doing so, or ever asked for my permission as a fairly well known Black Actor to do so. And yet I am told the burden of proof is on me to show an injustice. When I have spent years since these plays (and their earning hundreds of thousands of multiple currencies through those very same years) struggling to find equitable employment ands an actor and often being confronted with denied opportunity for the colour of my skin or straightness of my hair, or the bizarre concept that as a black actor I have had enough of the limelight. 
I worked and studied at mine and my family’s own expense to be in a position to have played those parts and yet parties removed from the concern of my livelihood or my children’s get to barter with my image and my work therein for their own enrichment while I get nothing. And ” I should be happy that I was chosen to be on their cover at all”…something is rotten here! 

Too many artists that I have known and worked with are being disrespected in similar or worse manners for this to be simply ignored. I have buried friends who might have died in better conditions had they gotten a modicum of what they deserved instead of what is deemed fit for us as “blacks” or artists or “black artists”.

And I have a history of fighting for what is right been at risk to my own well being…It’s part of why I am even an artist at all, and makes me the kind of artist I am. 


Vaneshran has acted alongisde many celebrated and revered artiosts, such as Dr. Jon kani from South Africa.

More on Vaneshran.
His philanthropy:

In line with his profession and desire to give back to society,  Vaneshran has also lent his time as a TV celebrity to worthy causes as a public speaker and activist for such organisations as POWA (People opposing Women Abuse), Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, Ashoka Innovators for the Public, The Men’s March.
Vaneshran was a founder member and trustee of The Turning Point Foundation, an organisation born out of teaching and training Performing Arts in Pollsmoor Prison and provides a platform for creating access and training in the Performing Arts to create social change and justice. This in addition to being inducted into the prestigious Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program Alumni Association, which is also an agency for social justice; and of whose Western Cape chapter, Vaneshran was Chairperson until the end of 2012.
Vaneshran finds deep reward in those contributions and collaborations that occur on the fringes of the performing Arts and creative industries, conceiving of interventions such as the Robben Island Bible Project, which  tells the unique, true South African story of Shakespeare on Robben island; a specific smuggled copy being shared among our most iconic personalities: Mandela, Kathrada, Sisulu and the like, and the story of Sunny Venkatratnam, former political prisoner and the man who owns this book that has been so significant.  The project brought together artists from various disciplines, teachers and students, and engaged collaboratively with different organisations, public institutions and city structures to create an immersive and layered experience of Story and History – and embodied well the principles of creativity, collaboration, relevance and excellence which have become hallmarks of Vaneshran’s work.

What else can Vaneshran do?
Presenting, Compèring and Programme directing
Directing (stage and camera)
Creative Writing (screen/scriptwriting  and poetry)
Music (guitar incl.  multiple instruments and vocal styles)
Visual Arts (drawing, graphics, painting)
Facilitation, Teaching, ​and Training (incl. Performance and Voice)
Sound and Lighting
Languages and Accents
Self Defence and Martial Arts  (various disciplines)
Meditation (various traditions)
Yoga
Stunt and fight choreography for stage and screen
Basic stunt driving
Horse riding
Basic weapons training, Fencing
Sports and fitness: Football, tennis, squash, frisbee, athletics, boxing, volleyball

What languages does he speak?
English, Afrikaans, German, conversant in isiXhosa. Have performed in Hindi, Portuguese, French German, Zulu, Tswana and other languages

How do we stop other institutions such as Oxford, form exploring him and other artists?

Contact information for writing or castings, contact vaneshran6face@gmail.com.

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