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Sharing South African Legacies

Sharing South African Legacies

On a sunny day in late November, a group of adventuresome RISD students caught a ferry to a remote island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa used as a prison during the days of Dutch colonial rule – visiting Robben Island to pay tribute to one of the world’s most iconic civil rights leaders. The group felt the weight of history as they sized up the narrow prison cell of Nelson Mandela, the world-famous political leader who dedicated his life to leading the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and helping to rebuild the country once he became its first democratically elected president in 1994.

Students enrolled in Dialogue Across the Diaspora, a fall 2013 course taught by Professor Jonathan Highfield, traveled to South Africa over Thanksgiving break to install an exhibition at the Slave Lodge Museum that they had worked to prepare earlier in the semester, collaborating with students from Cape Town University. In the months leading up to the trip, RISD and Brown students researched aspects of the African-American slave trade and the subsequent resistance movements it spawned across North America, the greater Caribbean, Haiti and South Africa.

During their short trip to Cape Town, students met Benny Gool, a veteran photojournalist who captured the spirit of South Africa during the height of the anti-apartheid movement. For three decades, the artist remained by Mandela’s side – always with a camera in hand – at major political rallies and meetings with influential world leaders.

“It was fascinating to sit down with someone who knew Mandela on a deeply personal level,” notes Josette Souza, a Brown student in the course. “Benny said [Mandela] was the real deal – not a phony guy who could charm people through words. He acted on what he believed in and treated every person – even so-called enemies of the United States and other powerful nations – with respect. That’s an example to follow.

To share their studies with the public, the impassioned group curated Unearthing Legacy, a powerful exhibition that opened in late January and continues through February 27 at RISD’s Red Eye Gallery. The show features a selection of heartfelt writings and artworks inspired by the students’ travels and research on the global slave trade. For instance, Denali Schmidt 15 FAV crafted a looping film using video footage she shot during the trip.

Souza made a necklace from tiger’s eye, a precious stone native to the Cape region that’s believed by locals to attract good luck and protect against negative energy. She attached a wire bent to read A Luta Continua, a Mozambican saying meaning “the struggle continues” and popularized by the singer Miriam Makeba.

“One of the things that most inspired me was the incredible resilience and kindness of South African people,” explains Souza. “There is no doubt in my mind that this gem reflects the power of people who are fighting hard to survive against tremendous odds. The human spirit cannot be broken.”

During the Robben Island tour, several students were disturbed by a curious piece of information divulged by their South African guide: As a young man he had also been incarcerated in the remote penitentiary – not far from Mandela’s cell – and now lives in a house formerly occupied by the prison guards from that era. “I understand that [the guard] needs a job to make money, but it’s troubling to me that he returned to the island to sustain himself,” notes Nicole Buchanan 15 SC. “It's like he’s still imprisoned by his economic options.”

During their visit to South Africa, students also investigated the devastating affects of apartheid by visiting the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. The memorial honors the lives of black migrant workers who, under the laws enforced by the Afrikaner minority, were forced to leave their families in order to find work. Living conditions for these workers were far from comfortable as hoards of men piled into one-room hostels located near the work sites.

According to students who toured the township of Lwandle, the vibrant community is still reeling from the long-term affects of the racial segregation. “There’s little opportunity for the people who live there,” Schmidt notes. “But things are starting to change for the better – even if it’s slow moving. Each generation will continue to build upon the progress made by their elders.”

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