Monday Memories: Apartheid Museum and David Krut Projects

Let me begin by saying that it’s crazy to consider that we’ve been in South Africa for three days. It feels as though yesterday I was curled up in the international terminal at the Detroit airport, munching on pretzels and sipping Diet Coke. Over a series of cramped planes, watered down airport coffee, and Cape Town shuttle busses, I finally arrived in Johannesburg and met the team—in person. It’s kind of like meeting your online friends which is weird and interesting and comfortable in an odd sort of way.

On Monday, we spent the day weaving through the twisted spaces of the Apartheid Museum, sorting through decades of laws passed and people imprisoned and standing and watching—sometimes for several minutes—documentary reels of the anti-apartheid uprisings. It’s as though everything I’ve read and processed in the past few weeks was merged together in scattered black and white photos and moving images that put faces to names and movements to a visual memory. Ernest Cole’s (1960s photojournalist) photographs that cover an entire hallway captured and elevated the oppression of black South Africans, as one photograph portrays the harshness of non-white children’s education.

Earnest Boy Squats on Haunches and Strains to Follow Lesson in Heat of Packed Classroom

Ernest Cole, Earnest Boy Squats on Haunches and Strains to Follow Lesson in Heat of Packed Classroom (1966)

I couldn’t help but feel guilty for my early education that I’ve so clearly taken for granted, and I couldn’t help but remember Nelson Mandela’s statement on freedom as a right that had to (during that point in history) be earned or purchased for non-white South Africans, not gifted at birth. Comparable to Mandela’s autobiography, the museum hoped to communicate the truth through facts, as our tour guide Katelego expressed. As well, the museum hoped to share what some South African academics were excluding, seeing the museum then as an educational source, not just an educational enrichment.

When I was in high school, I developed an interest in the arts and in history in an unfortunately math and science driven curriculum. Every chance I’d get, I’d tag along with other classes on field trips to local art museums, coming up with any excuse to get me out of class and into the museum. I then saw museums as a chance to expand my own education beyond what I was offered, particularly in an area I loved. But for some South African students, as Katelego commented, they don’t have access to history textbooks and thorough lessons on the late century’s government movement called apartheid. So that’s what the museum’s for. Not only for storing artwork and memories, but for actively, progressively, and persistently sharing knowledge. As we silently sipped cappuccinos halfway through our museum trip, I couldn’t help but reflect on these themes.

Later in the early evening, we drove to one of David Krut’s Johannesburg studios only to be blessed by the presence of the man himself. He cheerfully showed us around both that studio and the one across the street, digging out photographs and drawings from the bubble-wrapped stack under each work desk. I loved hearing his organic philosophy on the workspace environment and the studio’s partnerships with its artists, and I’m amazed at the collaborative, kind nature of people involved in South African arts. Reflecting upon my own relations to artists, museum staff, and even my professors back at city colleges in the States, I couldn’t help but feel a tad jealous of that down-to-earth nature here.