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Transient murals and immovable bronzes: our contested heritage plays out with ACT Warrior Wall project

By Ntshadi Mofokeng

The below article is produced by a writer who formed part of Creative Feel’s 2021 My Art Radar project. Read their work here.

Warriors of yesteryear are often memorialised in epic tales, songs, and towering monuments. In a world that has a diminishing appreciation of oral history as a medium, physical monuments reign supreme. On October 28 2021 in Maboneng, Johannesburg, the Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) unveiled its inaugural Warrior Wall mural celebrating the legacies of five past Lifetime Award honorees. The 5,5 x 7,8m mural installed on the exterior wall of the AfroBru restaurant is the physical manifestation of a collaborative, layered and generative process.

ACT Warrior Wall mural
The unveiling of the ACT Warrior Wall by Dr Riiana Koinka, Ambassador, EU Delegation to SA

The Danger Gevaar Ingozi (DGI) Studios team, led by Minenkulu Ngoyi and Nathaniel Sheppard III, have managed the mammoth task of installing the ACT Warrior Wall mural, supported by the EU in SA. The Warrior Wall honours David Koloane, Don Mattera, Dr John Kani, Miriam Makeba and Sylvia ‘Magogo’ Glasser who are recognised for having ‘had a profound and lasting impact on arts, culture and heritage and whose lifelong achievements have contributed significantly to the enrichment of cultural life in South Africa.’ This mural is the first of a project dedicated to honouring cultural icons on a regular basis rather than limiting them to the once-a-year heritage month spectacles.

The design of the mural is informed by the inspiration, reflection, engagement and creative voice of several young artists in conversation with the legacies of the featured warriors. Initially, a group of five photographers worked with archival materials from the Market Photo Workshop to interpret and represent what the warriors meant to them. Ngoyi and Sheppard used this foundation of collage and archive as a muse to inform their design of the mural. Like the photographers before them, Ngoyi and Sheppard, grappled with form in the process of creation. It was important for them to draw on the ethos of printmaking, their artistic discipline of choice, for its tactile nature as well as its historical symbolism. The mural’s aesthetic reflects printmaking techniques which came into prominence during the heyday of the ACT warriors in the 1960s and tips a hat to the cultural and political crucible in which they forged their own tools of artistry and resistance.

Where often political figures are committed to permanent, immovable bronze statues placed in public places of calculated significance, the Warrior Wall subverts how we think of heritage-making and its community-building function.

ACT Warrior Wall mural
The Arts & Culture Trust Warrior Wall unveiling in Maboneng

To an extensive catalogue of colonial and apartheid era statues, a concerted, and sometimes feeble, effort has been made to add figures of anti-apartheid struggle icons in recent decades. The questions of whether to remove and replace or simply to add more statues are not easily answered as South Africa continues to grapple with its open wounds, barely plastered over with platitudes of social cohesion. The increasingly vocal criticism and defacement of prominent symbols of colonial and apartheid power, which now find themselves on the wrong side of history, forces a reckoning with the form, purpose, and longevity of public monuments. By installing a permanent, grandiose, and seemingly immovable statue, a contemporary ideal is imposed upon future generations with an assumption of the persistence of the rightness or relevance of said ideal.

What the ACT Warrior Wall goes on to represent then, is not only a homage to the chosen artists but, perhaps more importantly, a mode of engaging with heritage that multiplies the possibilities of remembering by giving prominence to a discursive, communal and multigenerational methodology. While the paint will eventually fade and the mural will not loom over generations into perpetuity, the methodology behind the Warrior Wall project may yet prove itself useful to the development of a public historiography which can be participatory and nuanced.

At the launch of the ACT Warrior Wall, Rolihlala Mhlanga, coordinator and mentor, described the journey of the project as ‘engaging in a process of researching, deconstructing and unlearning what we thought we knew about our warriors.’ They worked through the Market Photo Workshop archives to source material, conducted independent research, and engaged in group workshops to develop the works that were launched as an exhibition in September. While the two phases of the Warrior Wall project were conceived as separate processes, the ingenuity of the DGI team in hosting a zine making workshop created an unplanned but oh-so-very necessary bridge. The photographers, Simphiwe Thabede, Zegugu Ngemntu, Remofiloe Nomandla Mayisela, Bongiwe Phakathi, and Tsepiso Mahooe, were guided to experiment with translating the ideas and images from their exhibition into zines using various techniques, including collage.

ACT Warrior Wall mural
The Arts & Culture Trust Warrior Wall unveiling in Maboneng

Ngoyi and Sheppard’s rich knowledge of printmaking techniques and South African cultural history infuse the final mural design with symbolism beyond the striking figures of the featured warriors. Their approach emphasised less of the individual achievements of the warriors, opting to represent them within the zeitgeist. In this way, Ngoyi and Sheppard hoped that the Warrior Wall would nod, albeit in subtle ways, to the many more who could be celebrated for their contribution to the rich cultural history of the country.

Despite, or perhaps because of, negotiating the key aesthetics of the commission with the ACT, Ngoyi and Sheppard were able to honour the collective effort involved in the Warrior Wall project through choice motifs. Using the collage technique inspired by Sam Nhlengethwa, who was a co-founder of the Bag Factory Studios with David Koloane, they transmuted the photographers’ zines into the foundational layers of the mural. The hand painted proteas are referenced from Mayisela’s design. The sketched portraits in the foreground, arranged with different focal points, are derived from less familiar images of the warriors. The depth of detail invites the public in for a closer look and, hopefully, serves as a conversation starter.

As difficult as it is to distill what heritage means to everyone, the ACT Warrior Wall mural is the culmination of rigorous and intentional engagement within a collective of young artists who find value in who and what has preceded them. The childhood game of rock paper scissors offers a material framework for interrogating the contentions over public monuments. The bronze statues take the place of rock; the mural and similar ephemeral methods represented by paper; and the court of public opinion as scissors. Where the bronzes hold power is in their persistence across contexts, regardless of how contemporary opinions shift. The latter cuts and collages more pliable modes of memorialisation in real time. While temporary in nature, the ACT Warrior Wall trumps the enduring bronzes in its ability to resonate with the public today and leave behind a methodology for future engagement with heritage.

The ACT Warrior Wall mural was unveiled on October 28 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. 

Ntshadi Mofokeng

Ntshadi Mofokeng is a cultural worker inspired by dance. She is active as a project manager and writer. She is also working on researching and documenting stories of/about dance(makers) in Africa. She started her career in education advocacy after attaining a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

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