Medu Art Ensemble

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Medu Art Ensemble
Formation1977 (1977)
Location
  • Gaborone, Botswana
Region
South Africa

Medu Art Ensemble was a collective of cultural activists based in Gaborone, Botswana during the height of the anti-apartheid resistance movement during the late twentieth century. The collective formed originally in 1977 as a group of black South African artists mutually invested in regional liberation struggles and resistance to apartheid policy of racial segregation (1948-1994).[1] Medu’s members, or “cultural workers” as they preferred to be called, eventually organized and relocated to Gaborone, Botswana in 1978.[2] With the support of the African National Congress (ANC), in Gaborone Medu officially registered as a cultural organization with the Botswanan government. Medu means “roots” in the Northern Sotho language, and so describes the collective's underground operations (in defiance of the Apartheid government's ban on oppositional political parties and organizations). The collective’s cultural work was rhizomatic in nature, stretching across seven semi-autonomous units: Film, Graphics, Music, Photography, Poetry, Publishing and Research, and Theatre.

In Gaborone, Medu organized concerts, conducted art and creative writing workshops, produced films, organized public health campaigns, and mounted exhibitions among other activities. The collective also produced agitational newsletters and political posters, both of which sought to simultaneously bolster regional solidarity, critique the injustices of the apartheid state, and promote black consciousness. One of Medu's flagship events was the 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival and Symposium, which brought thousands of activists, cultural workers, and ordinary people together (from across Africa, the Americas, and Europe) for a week of concerts, exhibitions, talks, workshops and other forms of radical cultural programing. This massive undertaking brought greater attention to Medu's activism, heightening in particular the apartheid government's scrutiny of collective's work. Medu disbanded in 1985, following the South African Defence Force's murderous Raid on Gaborone, which resulted in the death of twelve people, including Medu members Mike Hamlyn, Thamsanga Mnyele, George Phahle, and Lindi Phahle.

Members

As a multiracial collective of cultural workers, Medu comprised more than sixty visual artists, performers, and writers who, despite their different backgrounds and ideological positions, were collectively invested in regional liberation and resistance to apartheid rule. Although most members were South African, many hailed from Botswana, Canada, Cuba, Sweden, and the United States of America. Members of the collective included Gwen Ansell, Theresa Devant, Sergio-Albio González, Jonas Gwangwa, Basil Jones, Michael Kahn, Heinz Klugg, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Adrian Kohler, Mandla Langa, Hugh Masekela, Gordon Metz, Thamsanga Mnyele, Judy Seidman, Mongane Wally Serote, Pethu Serote, and Tim Williams, among many others.

Posters

Medu played a formative role in shaping the visual culture of resistance in South Africa during the late 1970s and early 1980s along with other key printmaking initiatives such as Junction Avenue, Screen Training Project, and Cape Town Arts Project. Operating both contemporaneously with and after Medu, these collectives also issued posters to inform and galvanize their compatriots, countering the disinformation campaigns and ideologies promulgated by the apartheid government.

The first of Medu's six units to emerge was Publications and Research, which served as the collective’s mouthpiece and administrative organ by generating the collective's meeting minutes, quarterly newsletters, and other publications. This unit operated symbiotically with the Graphics Unit, which designed covers for the newsletters and produced the posters for which Medu is best known. Medu produced over 100 posters during its lifetime, using a range of printing techniques including Offset printing and screen printing.

The iconography found across the collective's posters partakes of an international socialist and revolutionary lexicon of broken chains, clenched fists, upraised arms, and heroic depictions of activists and freedom fighters. This symbolism originated in World War I–era labor and anti-oppression movements across the world and was expressed in the work of Soviet and antifascist poster makers, Mexican muralism and print workshop members, and participants in the Harlem Renaissance—all of whom Medu graphic artists acknowledged as sources of inspiration.[3] The posters were often folded inside of newsletters and clandestinely smuggled into South Africa where they were often posted in public spaces before being torn down by state police or censors. Numerous examples of Medu's posters appeared on official censorship registries in accordance with apartheid state's 1974 Publications Act which outlined materials the regime deemed "undesirable," or potentially threatening to apartheid law; during the 1980s, newspapers such as the The Rand Daily Mail ran columns on censored material, many of which included Medu's posters and newsletters.

Medu's posters range in their content. Posters intended for South African audiences forcefully scrutinized the pernicious mechanism and brutality of apartheid through bold imagery and slogans, while others promoted the various cultural activities Medu's Film, Photography, Theatre, and Music units organized in Gaborone. The posters were typically produced through dialogue among Medu's participants, with individual or groups of members contributing to different designs before presenting proposals to the entire collective for approval. While posters for temporal-specific events such as concerts were often produced in short runs, others with evergreen political content were issued in the hundreds, especially in the lead up to the collective's 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival and Symposium where posters were given out to attendees.

Exhibitions

Medu's work has been the subject of several exhibitions. In 2008, the Johannesburg Art Gallery mounted the exhibition Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble, which centered on the work of Thamsanga Mnyele and his contribution's to Medu's Graphics Unit. This comprehensive exhibition brought together artwork by Mnyele, a substantial collection of Medu's posters, and archival documents, media, and ephemera attesting to the collective's cultural programming and tragic dissolution.

A few of Medu's posters were included in the 2011 exhibition, Impressions from South Africa,1965 to Now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago organized The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster, the first exhibition on Medu's work in North America. The show brought together 130 objects, including more than 60 posters by Medu derived largely from the museum's collection, as well as ephemera borrowed from Medu members.[4]

Bibliography

Key sources of scholarship on Medu Art Ensemble include:

  • Images of Defiance: South African Resistance Posters of the 1980s (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2004)
  • Giorgio Miescher, Dag Henrichsen, eds., African Posters: A Catalogue of the Poster Collection in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien (Basel: Basler Afrika-Bibliographien, 2004)
  • Judy Seidman, Red on Black: The Story of the South African Poster Movement (Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2007)
  • Clive Kellner and Sergio-Albio González, eds., Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective: Johannesburg Art Gallery (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2008)
  • Diana Wylie, Art + Revolution: The Life and Death of Thami Mnyele, South African Artist (Auckland Park: Jacana, 2008)
  • John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid. Minneapolis (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
  • Molemo Moiloa, ed., 58 Years of the Treason Trial: Inter-Generational Dialogue as a Method of Learning (Johannesburg: Keleketla Media Arts Project NPC, 2012)
  • Shannen L. Hill, Biko's Ghost: the Iconography of Black Consciousness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015)
  • Antawan I. Byrd and Felicia Mings, eds., The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster (Art Institute of Chicago & Yale University Press, 2020)

Collections

Posters (and in some case, newsletters) by Medu Art Ensemble can be found in numerous public collections including:

  • South African History Archive[5]
  • Freedom Park Archives[6]
  • University of the Western Cape, Robben Island Museum[7]
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York[8]
  • Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel, Switzerland[9]

References

  1. Kellner, Clive and González, Sergio-Albio (2009). Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble retrospective : Johannesburg Art Gallery. , Johannesburg Art Gallery. Sunnyside, South Africa: Jacana. ISBN 978-1-77009-688-2. OCLC 501159351.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. "Medu Art Ensemble | South African History Online". www.sahistory.org.za. Retrieved 2020-06-08.
  3. Judy Seidman, "The Art of National Liberation: The Thami Mnyele and Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective" in Clive Kellner and Sergio-Albio Gonzalez, eds., Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensembe (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2008) 89.
  4. "The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2020-06-07.
  5. http://www.saha.org.za
  6. https://www.freedompark.co.za/index.php
  7. https://repository.uwc.ac.za/
  8. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/137370
  9. https://baslerafrika.ch/

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