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Mankind has a history replete with examples of oppression and cruelty. We would like to think that we have developed as Humanity, and left this legacy behind us. Unfortunately, it is still too apparent around us. We have only to contemplate Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Gaza or one of many others, to realise that oppression and cruelty are still very much a part of our world.
Perhaps this sad reality is what gives us an appreciation of those occasions where liberation is achieved.
Our desire to move past this indictment of our human character causes us to celebrate when oppression is lifted. When the Berlin wall fell, it was a symbol of liberation from the oppression of communism, and the world celebrated. But they were not just celebrating the fall of communism, but the fact that it fell without bloodshed. For many years the Cold War had threatened Global destruction and bloodshed, but it was averted. It was a great day and people who managed to obtain pieces of the Berlin Wall displayed them proudly, as tokens of the progress of mankind.
In South Africa we have a similar story. For many years, the indigent population was oppressed by colonial settlers. Nelson Mandela became an icon who represented the resistance to oppression, and was locked up as a political prisoner by the Apartheid regime for 27 years in total, 18 of which were spent in the Robben Island maximum security prison. The situation promised bloodshed, if not outright civil war. Many wanted revenge for the years of oppression, while the colonists were not prepared to give up what they had built. Twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the world watched to see what would happen. Quite unexpectedly, South Africa achieved a peaceful transformation and became a democratic country. The people were liberated without bloodshed, thanks to the gracious leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Like the fall of the Berlin wall, this transformation in South Africa was another step upward for mankind. It was an example to the world of what can be achieved if we put our minds to it. It gave hope that other examples of oppression could be resolved peacefully.
Twenty years later, South Africa continues to address and redress the impact of its past. At the same time it faces the same challenges as the rest of the world, amongst others the challenges of climate change and sustainability. These are issues which are of active concern to only a small minority, as most don’t know, or don’t want to know. It is necessary to get the message through to them.
Throughout history, artists in their various ways have been responsible for providing social commentary on issues which need to be addressed. Just as there were poets, writers and painters who used their skills to speak out against Apartheid, there are artists who are speaking out now about Climate Change and the way that we live our lives.
[singlepic id=27 w=320 h=240 float=left]In 2009, the Michaelis school of fine art at the University of Cape Town awarded the highly sought-after Michaelis prize to a student whose art was a commentary of the political state of post Apartheid South Africa. The commentary spoke not only through the art pieces but also through the fact that all of the art was made from materials which had been discarded. What is trash to one man is treasure to another. In a world where every second thing is disposable either in the short or long term, to take objects destined for the trash pile and put them to use again, is a strong message in itself.
The artist was Christopher Swift, and the power of his art did not go unnoticed. Several pieces have been sold to collectors and Spier accepted two of the pieces into the Spier Contemporary Art Competition. One of the pieces went on to win the competition. You can read more about the Spier Contemporary here.
A significant element of Chris Swift’s exhibition was his use of the Robben Island fencing which had for so many years held Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu and many others, captive. How the artist managed to acquire the fencing from Robben Island is a powerful message of his exhibition. On a visit to Robben Island he noticed that they were removing the fencing and sending it to a landfull. After making enquiries, he was given permission to take ownership of the ‘scrap’ and rescue it to the mainland.
After his exhibition, Chris felt that the Robben Island fence had more to give. A few meetings with the V&A Waterfront convinced them they needed to be a part of what he had in mind. They offered space in front of the Robben Island Museum for an art installation which was to be a collaboration by several of the Michaelis graduates, using the Robben Island fencing. The Waterfront also provided exhibition space in the mall to exhibit pieces created by the individual artists. Read more about the Waterfront Exhibition here.