Art

The South African Art Collective That Imagined the End of Apartheid

The history of the Medu Art Ensemble reminds us of the role artists play in making the aims of revolutionary thinking tangible.

Medu Art Ensemble (Judy A. Seidman), “… and the people vote for Nelson Mandela” (1981) (the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)

CHICAGO — Rarely are poets silenced when nations imprison them for speaking out. Mongane Wally Serote, poet and community organizer who became involved in the African National Congress in 1969, was arrested that same year under the Terrorism Act, the infamous piece of legislation used to imprison Nelson Mandela and silence anti-racist resistance to apartheid in South Africa. On July 21, 2018, Palestinian poet, photographer, and digital activist Dareen Tatour was sentenced to five months in an Israeli prison for publishing on Instagram a poem she wrote, titled, “Resist, my people, resist them.” Her charge was “inciting terrorism.” In the end, Tatour was released after 42 days, and her story, like Serote’s, speaks to the state of apartheid. In spite of the afterlives of South African apartheid, Serote was named the nation’s 2018 National Poet Laureate.

In 1978, Serote and Thamsanqa (Thami) Mnyele founded the Medu Art Ensemble, an art collective that advocated for an end to the South African apartheid government through creative expression — poetry, graphic design, photography, music, and theatre, or any genre of art their cause could attract. A sensory time capsule of their work and the community they built is currently on view in the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition The People Shall Govern!: Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster.

What was originally a group 15 artists fleeing to exile from the townships grew to boast 50 members from around the world. The exhibition contextualizes the Medu Art Ensemble’s work through Southern Africa’s geopolitical landscape in the previous decade, delving into the daily lives of those who were subject to and resisted the apartheid regime. Medu posters that hung around South Africa’s townships juxtapose cartoon images of European politicians overseeing colonial holdings with maps of newly independent nations led by communists. The international makeup of Medu’s ranks is reflected in the group’s varied aesthetic influences, ranging from 1920s Soviet-influenced laborer imagery to their 1970s Mozambiquan and Namibian counterparts. Buttons, pamphlets with essays and poems, headsets playing contemporary music, and news articles depicting activists like Dorothy Nyembe are displayed alongside a slew of lithographs by Judy Seideman, a longtime, American-born Medu Art Ensemble member. Medu members’ devotion to upending the effects of anti-Black policy was based in their refusal of an isolated, elite “artist” identity. Instead, each craftsperson owned his or her role in contributing to the daily communal effort of liberation.

Medu Art Ensemble (Thamsanqa Mnyele and Judy A. Seidman), “The People Shall Defeat Aggression” (1983) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)

Curators Felicia Mings and Antawan Byrd emphasize the collaborative nature of Medu’s activist art. In an interview with both curators, Mings said it was important to memorialize Medu by recreating that moment in time. Medu members and collaborators are not “just fallen comrades, but people they knew and cared for.” Whether creating an image Black African laborers resisting resettlements of Blacks or of martyrs urging action in lieu of mourning, Medu’s ethos was grounded in the personal.

Medu Art Ensemble (Sergio-Albio Gonzalez), “Shades of Change” (1982) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)

Exhibition texts explain that almost immediately after being posted, most Medu posters were torn down. Raised hands and fists and clutched weapons or tools recur in these posters alongside faces expressing frustration and celebration, echoing design work for the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas. As routine as the checkpoints and pass system became, so did the visual signaling that these hardships could end, expressed in sentiments like, “White Republics: NO!”; “People’s Republic: YES!”; “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!”; “The People Shall Defeat Aggression and Destablisation!”; “The Worker’s Footsteps Will Crush Exploitation.” As the Art Institute’s Amarie Gibson reflects, one walks away wondering how much greater an impact Medu may have had if the group had been allowed to operate openly in South Africa — like South African anti-apartheid Black literary and cultural magazine Staffrider — and not in exile in Gaborone, Botswana.

About halfway through the exhibition, the viewer is made aware of the untimely raid on the Medu headquarters in Gaborone conducted by the South African Defense Force, killing 12 and ending Medu operations. It’s easy to overlook the narrative developments of Medu’s history, with gallery labels listing dates and developments tucked away in the outskirts of the space. The curators further develop the narrative with a film featuring formal and informal sessions and interviews from the Medu-organized “Culture and Resistance Festival,” along with art objects from the late years of the Medu. The group’s internationalism shines through in posters with news from Mozambique’s civil wars and well-worn copies of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, as well as Ensemble newsletters and copies of Staffrider. Mings and Byrd tell a story of how the members of Medu connected as cultural laborers by depicting what liberation might look and feel like throughout Southern Africa.

Medu Art Ensemble (Thamsanqa Mnyele), “Unity, Democracy and Courage” (1983) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)
Medu Art Ensemble (Judy A. Seidman), “The People Shall Govern!” (1982) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)

One of the main tenets of the Medu Art Ensemble was that their output should be functional, but in a sense that cultivated a deep sense of community and direction. Thami Mnyele, killed during the SADF Medu raid in Gaborone, said this (in the aforementioned film) of his own practice: “The act of creating art should compliment the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture.” Medu took advantage of the ban that barred all Black and colored artists from exhibiting in public gallery spaces in South Africa by making use of other means of art production; the group members also felt posters and pamphlets, which could be widely distributed, were the most accessible and empowering art forms at their disposal.

Mnyele’s works, like that of Dareen Tatour, Thami Mnyele, Mongane Serote, Sergio Albio González, Judy Seidman, and José Freire, are objects of terror only to those who fear the end of a racist social order. Medu’s posters are objects that move us, as they enact movements themselves.

Medu Art Ensemble, “The Constellation of States” (1979) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)
Medu Art Ensemble, “Education for Development” (1983) (The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Artworkers Retirement Society © Medu Art Ensemble)

The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through September 2.

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