The People Shall Govern! is the first exhibition in North America to showcase the work of the Medu Art Ensemble, a collective which formed in the late 1970s to protest South Africa’s apartheid policies. Medu was composed of many prominent South African artists and activists living in exile in Gaborone, Botswana, and worked in numerous different mediums – theater, literature, drawing, and posters and graphics. These pieces were smuggled into South Africa at incredible risk with the goal of mobilizing and raising awareness for social justice and the anti-apartheid movement.
This week, the African Studies Program was lucky enough to chat with a former member of the Medu Art Ensemble about the exhibition — Heinz Klug, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Law and affiliate of the African Studies Program here at the University of Wisconsin.
Klug left South Africa for Botswana in 1979 in the face of increasing government pressures, where he lived and participated in the Medu Art Ensemble until 1985. His return to the continent from a visit to his now-spouse, Professor Gay Seidman of the Department of Sociology, in California was then made impossible by an Apartheid regime military raid on Botswana which targeted the Medu Ensemble among other anti-apartheid activists. It would be yet another five years before he would be able to safely return to South Africa.
Aware of his involvement with the Medu Art Ensemble, the Chicago Art Institute reached out to Klug early on regarding their plans for the exhibition and invited him to visit the Institute in late May to come and see the Exhibit. He has two pieces featured in the exhibition, a newsletter cover and a poster, which he had not seen in-person since he left Botswana. It was “fabulous” to come across them again, Klug said. It was as if he was taking a step backward in time.
Even more amazing for him, though, was watching the film that plays in the background of the exhibition. It is a recording by Dutch filmmakers of a culture and arts festival, entitled “Culture and Resistance,” that the Melu Art Ensemble put on in Botswana in June 1982.
“I had never seen the film,” Klug commented, “And then the Art Institute had it playing as part of the exhibit. It was just fantastic to watch. I was able to see all these people that I knew at the time. A few of them were killed in the military raid, and many have passed away since. While many names are listed in the exhibit, the Institute has not been able to document what became of many of those who participated in the Art Ensemble. So, when I see the exhibit, I see it through very different eyes.”
For those of us who weren’t a part of the Medu Art Ensemble, it will be impossible to ever truly see it through the eyes of the artists, to fully appreciate the creativity, dynamism, and fearlessness that it still represents. Through this exhibition, though, perhaps we can try.
The People Shall Govern! runs until September 2, 2019. You can purchase tickets here.
Written by Rebecca Hanks.