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In Conversation with Heroic Memory: the ACT Warrior Wall Revealed

By Thobile Jane Maphanga

Memorialising some of our country’s most important and revolutionary artists in a meaningful way cannot be an easy feat. Miriam Makeba, Sylvia Glasser, Dr John Kani, Don Mattera and David Koloane all played vital roles in shaping the industries they worked in, whilst fighting against apartheid. These are not unsung heroes and so it is fitting that the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) Warrior Wall project of memorialising them has been conceptualised in a seemingly open and free manner.  No statues were built and no names on buildings or streets unveiled. 

ACT Warrior Wall mural
Jessic Denyschen, Minenkulu Ngoyi and Nathaniel Sheppard III

Instead, a two phased approach was adopted that allowed five young women photographers in the first phase, and two male mural artists in the second phase, to engage with how they know and understand these legendary artists to be and how they might leave behind artefacts that our future selves can look upon for memory and inspiration.  Having two writers document each phase becomes an important way of adding to the written archive – preserving an understanding of the process of memorial-making that these seven artists have embarked on.

The idea of memorialising is one that I have been thinking about for a while. The 2015 #rhodesmustfall movement, led by students, saw youth all over the country wreak havoc on old colonial statues, signaling a need for us as a country to truly look at who and what we honour whilst trying to release ourselves from the grips of our colonisers. It exposed how our history has valued certain individuals and societies more than our own and how we have continued to allow these colonisers to still peer over us in the very institutions and spaces of learning that should be interrogating and speaking against them. The youth are no longer having it. Photographers Bongiwe Phakathi, Remofiloe Nomandla Mayisela, Simphiwe Thabede, Tsepiso Mahooe and Zegugu Ngemntu alongside mural artists Minenkulu Ngoyi and Nathaniel Sheppard III use this commission to explore alternate ways of memorialising.

In imagining the discussions between the artists, mentors, and project managers around the brief, I suspect thoughts may have circled around what it means to memorialise a proclaimed legend.  Or, perhaps, how we might determine what is worth memorialising, and how we memorialise. Their questions may have interrogated how we do this in ways that acknowledge and value our own ways of understanding and knowledge making – ways that are not steeped in monument-making that might push us back to colonial ways of thinking but rather, ways that open conversations that engage past, present, and future.  

I have adopted the idea of historicity in the way that Hirsh and Stewart consider it to be a continuum between past, present, and future, rather than history being a documentation of the past as an absolute event. I believe the ACT Warrior Wall project, initiated by ACT and sponsored by the European Union (EU) Delegation to South Africa, sparked a meaningful conversation about how we hold our histories. 

Chatting with mural artists Ngoyi and Sheppard, both from the Danger Gevaar Ingozi (DGI) collective, on Zoom prior to their first engagement with the photographers, they expressed that they were uncertain what the outcome of their mural would look like. The output of phase one resulted in five unique expressions and, for me, speaks volumes about how the five photographers related the work of the legends to some of the more pressing issues still prevalent in our country.  As printmakers who have learnt from greats such as Sam Nhlengethwa, a peer of David Koloane, whom they have also interacted and engaged with at various stages of their art scholarship, Ngoyi and Sheppard expressed that it was important to them to pay homage to the generational and peer-to-peer knowledge passed on. 

ACT Warrior Wall mural
Arts & Culture Trust Warrior Wall

Through a zine workshop with the photographers, they mirrored this way of communicating and sharing of skills and knowledge. Ngoyi and Sheppard’s process embraced open and inclusive methods of collecting information through dialogue and images presented in small zines that each photographer produced.

I asked: ‘Why zines, in a time where many people don’t read?’ They made clear that zines, unlike most publications these days, are not created for commercial value and are produced through methods that honour earlier forms of printing.  Zine-making pays homage to the slower, simple processes of Riso printing which include techniques of silk screen printing and photocopying, their main aim being to communicate a message. I found this deeply profound and entirely necessary for a world that doesn’t know how to slow down, even when hit by a global pandemic.

In that same Zoom session, we were taught how to fold and cut a zine that required no binding. We were shown examples of zines that were word heavy and others that were visual feasts. I found it reassuring that in their thinking about how to engage with the artists whose works and ideas would now need to translate into a consolidated mural, that these artists were not thinking about fast efficiency, but rather slow and small tasks that centered making rather than reproducing. That they were willing to share and pass on new skills whilst they learnt from their peers. 

In a later conversation with Ngoyi and Sheppard, they expressed an openness with their processes and methods and that anyone who worked with them would learn everything they knew, further imprinting their culture of open accessibility and community. Their engagement with the various bits of information they received got me thinking of how, as Africans, we pass on information.  Somebody once told me that the San people used to draw in the sand only to clear it away as soon as the person who needed to receive the message had reviewed it. But I also remembered how some of our oldest writings on the continent are the paintings and drawings that exist in the walls of caves and tombs. The idea of silk screen printing and murals seems to somehow speak to these ancient forms of communicating and documenting.  The act of smearing the colour over the silk screen, in my head, mirrors the clearing of a message imprinted in the dust and there is the obvious link between murals and rock paintings or tomb inscriptions.

ACT Warrior Wall mural
Dr John Kani and Don Materra

As we waited to hear and see more from the artists, I began to think about who is worthy of being memorialized. How do we define icon, legend, or warrior to even begin a process of artificing? In a place where we are so influenced by western ideas of celebrity, do we know what we might value for ourselves when we call someone a living legend or even a warrior? Especially in the arts, where so many artists are often not acknowledged for their work in society. As we emerge from a 19-month lockdown where many artists could not work, and the real struggles of artists were laid bare for all to see, I wonder what does it mean to be a legend in the South African arts industry and economy? What do awards and such acts of memorialising mean?

Knowing that this was a commissioned project, there is a line of ownership that could be construed as blurred. As already mentioned, this project is one that originated with ACT and is supported by the EU Delegation to SA to honour South African artists who have won the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award. Now, in even writing just that sentence I feel dis-ease and discomfort as the statement seems laden with malady and contradiction. As a 1980’s baby, I am immediately suspicious of ulterior motives and question the support of the Global North. Are we not being asked to dance to their tune again? Or act in a particular way so that we may find ourselves beholden to them and indebted to their kindness? Could it be a way of controlling the narrative?

On the other hand, can we be surprised that a project of this nature appealed to and was sponsored by the EU Delegation to SA, rather than our own National Arts Council which has mismanaged the lives of artists in the recent past? Whatever the politics, I acknowledge the profound way that the artists involved in this project have taken up the challenge to rethink and reignite discussion around how we value and acknowledge our greats. 

I noticed in conversations with Ngoyi and Sheppard, they always referred to the legacies of those that went before them. Both artists had had the opportunity to personally engage with visual artist David Koloane, but their understanding of him is broader. It took into consideration the culture of his time, which included the people and places of that time too. Their ideas of legacy connected with the layering approach that they began to adopt in the conceptualising of their mural. Earlier iterations of mock-ups were heavily layered paying homage to the discipline of fastidious detail in crafting. Initial images of the warriors were taken from the photography phase of the project and collaged with words and motifs. This eventually evolved to expressive sketches of lesser used images of the legends and a more discreet presence of the photographers’ work.     

In seeing the various drafts of the design, it became clear to me that deep consideration had gone into where the mural should be located and who would be viewing it. Maboneng is a bustling part of the Johannesburg inner city that is frequented by a diverse range of young, vibrant people, working, and having a good time. What would resonate with the people in this time and space and draw them to think about those who have to some degree afforded us the freedom to occupy this space? As drafts were reconfigured and adjusted, a refinement of the many ideas that had emerged started to settle.

The mural, unveiled on October 28, is a layered manifestation of process and time that derives many meanings.  Working with young assistants to realise this design, Ngoyi and Sheppard in three days transformed the wall outside AfroBru in Maboneng into a trendy provocateur that asks, what patterns are we cutting and leaving for others to follow in? How do we move and navigate through the pathways that were left for us? And what do we hold most dear?

Employing stencils and paint the artists painstakingly achieve the effect of halftones that create the texture beneath the politicised visages. There is a referencing to the persistent history of entanglement between politics, media, and justice. The expressive movement in the sketch lines that outline the faces is not a common mural aesthetic which speaks to a resistance to conformance.  The static stencils in mild magenta and the large protea looming in the background honour the work of the photographers and a culture of collaboration and acknowledgement. 

Situated in a place filled with murals, artwork and a youthful vibe, the location seems a perfect fit for this work. But what of the work of the photographers in phase one?  We have been told that the photographs will move to the offices of the EU and the ambassador’s home, but there will also be an online representation of it that can be accessed via QR codes. One of these will be at the mural site, allowing anyone walking past and interested in why there is suddenly a gorgeous new conversation-starter in Maboneng, they can learn all about the who, when and what of this project ensuring these efforts are never forgotten. I think for the artists, like many of us, it is important that history remains in conversation with the present so that we might find our ways into the future. 

The ACT Warrior Wall mural was unveiled on October 28 2021, and can be viewed at AfroBru, 299 Fox Street, Maboneng, Johannesburg. For further information visit the Trust’s website, or follow them on Twitter and Facebook. #ACTWarriorWall. The project is supported by the EU Delegation to South Africa. 

Thobile Maphanga

Thobile Maphanga is a Durban based dance practitioner, creative collaborator and emerging writer. Her current preoccupation is with Black female narratives and how Black women are writing themselves into history in the ‘now’. Through her research, which is theory and practice led, she explores where and how Black women use their voices and where these voices can be found. Thobile is passionate about engaging conversations around topical societal issues to find solutions for better living, and is deeply interested in the various expressions of individual voices. 

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