Remembering Medu, the South African art collective that fought apartheid

Medu Art Set was based in Gaborone, Botswana between 1979 and 1985. Medu (meaning ‘roots’ in Sepedi) has played a key role in shaping South African culture of fighting. aside.

The collective was formed by South African cultural activists exiled after the 1976 Soweto Uprising and he worked with artists from the country, citizens of Botswana and some other countries. Medu used the creative arts – visual image, theater, music and literature – to give voice to the liberation struggle of South Africa. In 1982, Medu brought several thousand cultural activists to Gaborone for a conference entitled Culture and resistance, proclaiming that

Culture is a weapon of struggle.

Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial company, Medu is committed with revolutionary art including the work of the German theater designer Bertolt Brecht, Vietnamese Resistance poetry, the mexican wall painters and Chilean muralists who responded to the dictatorship.

On June 14, 1985, the South African army targeted members of Medu in Botswana in a cross-border raid. They killed 14 people and destroyed the artist collective.

Almost lost in history

Four decades later, post-apartheid South Africa barely remembers Medu’s contributions. So far we only remember the iconic posters of Medu (“Smash Bantu Education”, “You touched a rock”, “The people will rule”) and the individual creative work of famous Medu writers Keorapetse Kgositsile, Mongane Wally Serote and Mandla Langa. Musicians Jonas Gwangwa and Dennis mpale. From plastic surgeon Thamsanqa Mnyele.

But what was missing was a recording of the intense debates, contested cultural theory, collective understanding and shared perceptions that permeated these works.

In 2019, a breakthrough came when the Chicago Art Institute collected and displayed Medu posters. This was followed by a book in the form of a catalog entitled The people will rule: Medu Art Ensemble and the anti-apartheid poster 1979-1985.

Here, as an artist member of Medu, I offer a critical perspective on the narrative that emerges from this exhibition and this catalog.

The Chicago Show

Doubts inevitably arise when African works of art are exhibited in artistic institutions in foreign metropolises, far from the communities and struggles that spawned them. At Medu, we believed that our work should inspire resistance and consider future release. What do these posters say to viewers when they are hung on the sterile walls of a gallery in Chicago or London?

The cover of the Chicago catalog.
Chicago Art Institute

The curators of the Medu exhibition were Antawan Byrd and Felicia Mings, who previously researched Pan-Africanist cultural struggles and took these challenges seriously.

With no broad narrative or complete collection of Medu’s work, they contacted surviving Medu members, unearthed hidden stories, and researched post-apartheid cultural discourse. They wrote texts for the gallery walls and displayed props including magazines like Rider and The African Communist, political buttons, T-shirts, music and movie clips. They organized lectures and public discussions.

The catalog

The catalog was published one year after the exhibition closed. Without the objects and framing activities of the show, the text weaves a narrative about Medu through seven essays, juxtaposed with images of posters.

The catalog organizes the posters by theme: political resistance, music, women’s struggles, June 16, 1976, workers and heroes of the struggle. This brings imagery and slogans to the fore over creative interpretation and vision. Closed fists read like a cliché or a symbol, rather than a lived experience of wrestling. The posters for the murdered comrades become “heroic depictions of activists and freedom fighters”, not precious memories of real people.

In the text, a brief overview of Medu’s history is followed by South African poet Mongane Serote’s own experience shaping Medu as the cultural project of the ANC in exile. While this story is an integral part of Medu’s story, it ignores other contributions to Medu’s dynamic mix. Like heated debates with Dark consciousness– cultural activists aligned in Gaborone, the underground work of Medu members with the military wing of the ANC, and cross-fertilization with groups creating the art of struggle in South Africa.

Ming and Byrd discuss the aesthetics of Medu graphics, finding similarities to early Soviet art. But Medu has consciously traced its aesthetic roots in Pan-Africanist and Diasporic African cultural theory and practice. We turned to social philosopher Frantz Fanon and African writers Wole soyinka and NgÅ©gÄ© wa Thiong’o. To pre-colonial and anti-colonial African art. To the art of Mozambique Malangatana Ngwenya and South Africa Dumile Feni.

An illustration of a woman raising a hand that has a broken shackle around her wrist and the words, “Now you hit the women, you hit a rock;  you dislodged a rock;  you will be crushed '
Poster of the Medu women’s movement.
Judy Seidman / Medu Art Set

A chapter from the South African conservative Khwezi Gule looks at Medu through the cultural gaze of South Africa after 1990. Gule argues that Medu’s slogan, “art is a weapon of struggle”, has been “reduced to a brutal tool of propaganda”. He argues that “militarized art degenerates into crass slogans” as artistic vision has become distorted under the compromises of the ANC, white privilege and the commercial art market. Gule concludes that today’s generation must shape their own rebellious culture.

In contrast, the South African author and scholar Ashraf Jamal argues that Medu’s democratic discourse and practice spawned hope and belief, emerging and inspiring the liberation struggle in southern Africa. He concludes that “Medu’s struggle cannot be framed solely by its historical location in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea and spirit that informs it also predates and transcends. “

Read more: Art as a weapon in South Africa’s liberation struggle

The final test, Collect the posters, by a South African collector and gallery owner Warren Siebrits, gives yet another perspective. Siebrits was drafted into the apartheid army in 1988 and deployed in military intelligence: “One of the main tasks of our unit was to destroy the ‘subversive enemy propaganda posters’.” After 1994, he hunted down these now rare posters to place them in today’s art world “by purchasing them from private collections and booksellers and on a trip to Botswana”. He does not explain that these posters were personal copies recorded by a member of Medu Marius Schoon, whose wife Jeannette Curtis Schoon and 6-year-old daughter Katryn were kill by a letter bomb in 1984 in Angola. Siebrits bought the posters from their surviving son, displaying them in his Johannesburg gallery before donating them to the Art Institute of Chicago. This traumatic poster story speaks strongly about the meaning of Medu then and now.

The catalog and the exhibition aim to provide and arouse “a new scholarship on the courageous and consequent work of Medu”. The first steps towards reclaiming Medu’s legacy have been taken.

There is still a long way to go.

About Norma Wade

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