Last Friday night, I returned to Cape Town from a ten day trip to Johannesburg to install and open a solo exhibition, ‘Can’t Remember, Can’t Forget’, in the spacious new art gallery recently added to the Apartheid Museum.
The friend who had stayed in my apartment while I was away left me a book: John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear: dispatches on survival and resistance.
This morning I opened it, and started to read the first essay, written in April 2006. ‘The world has changed’ wrote Berger, ‘Information is being communicated differently. Misinformation is developing its techniques. On a world scale, emigration has become the principal means of survival. The national state of those who had suffered the worst genocide in history has become, militarily speaking, fascist. National states in general have become politically downsized and reduced to the role of vassals serving the new world economic order. The visionary political vocabulary of three centuries has been garbaged. In short, the economic and military global tyranny of today has been established.’
In the decade since Berger, who died early this year, wrote those prescient words, every observation he makes here has become even more horrifyingly true. In the essays in this book, Berger goes on to make an impassioned plea for the uses of art as an instrument of political resistance.
Which brings me back to the Apartheid Museum, probably the most heavily visited institution in the country, a must-see for every visitor to Johannesburg. Two American collectors told me recently they had been told by friends to spend at least a day there, as it would be the highlight of their South African trip.
The journey through the museum itself, is heavily structured: in the main exhibition halls, a set route leads viewers through a series of metal gates which must be opened one by one as the visitor goes through the galleries, past a series of multi media displays of the events, the atrocities, the heroes and heroines and the collective protests which mapped the rise and fall of apartheid. It is impossible not to be profoundly moved.
In contemplating these graphic reminders of our past, as a South African, it is also impossible not to be deeply saddened at the way in which by 2016, the possibilities of a new dispensation with opportunities for all in a more equal society have been trampled upon by those in power. The rule of law is ignored in favour of greed and abuse of public office.
To the youth of today, the Nelson Mandela whose presence is so powerfully recalled in the Mandela Remembrance Centre at the museum is a leader who was too eager to please, to reconcile with the white oppressors, and who failed to negotiate terms which would have led to a real shift in economic power.
And this is why the opening of the new art gallery at the museum, which leads off the Remembrance Centre and has been named for the legendary lawyer George Bizos is so significant. It allows the museum, under the directorship of veteran curator Christopher Till, to move beyond the purely documentary and the historical and provide a space for reflection through art on problems and conundrums of the contemporary, thus adding another level to the experience of those visiting the institution.
It was an honour to be the first contemporary artist to be invited to exhibit in the new space, which can be adjusted and adapted in many different ways. Five hundred square metres can be divided into separate areas with 25 movable columns.
In the first space, we installed Messages from the Moat, last seen in Johannesburg on the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, twenty years ago.
Opposite, is the charged conversation between Siyah Mgoduka and Candice Mama, in the two channel video, It’s a pleasure to meet you. (2016) The two young people discuss the killing of their fathers, the effect it had on their family life, and the difficulties of forgiveness.
Playing with the columns allowed us to set up a diagonal row down the centre of the space, with the ‘All Our Mothers’ series of photographs of women in the struggle for liberation..
I had the pleasure of hearing George Bizos’ comment on the work, before the opening speeches
Buhle and Buli Siwani, Candice Mama, Me, Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and Doreen Mgoduka, in discussion following the opening.