The South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) was the main force advocating Namibian independence from the apartheid state of South Africa in 1981. Thamsanqa (Thami) Mnyele’s bold screenprint endorsing their cause shows two black revolutionaries, mouths open, Kalashnikovs upraised. Using a restricted palette of black and red, Mnyele pictured the kind of militant activism, often explicitly socialist, that ratcheted up pressure on colonial governments during the second half of the twentieth century. Mnyele himself trained as a guerrilla in Angola before he was murdered in Botswana by commandos from the South African Defence Force (SADF) only a few years after crafting his pro-SWAPO poster.
That early morning raid in 1985 cut short the life of the Medu Art Ensemble, a flourishing collective of artists, musicians and assorted cultural workers who had worked since 1977 to undermine South African apartheid and promote issues like Pan-Africanism and Third World resistance. Largely operating in exile from Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, Medu smuggled posters and screen printing kits into South Africa, and organized sprawling international conferences devoted to culture and politics. This exhibition, organized after the Art Institute of Chicago received a landmark gift of Medu posters (despite their significance, the group’s work has gone largely uncollected by Western archives and museums), showcases some of their breadth. Album covers, pamphlets and illustrated books were all key parts of the Medu output.
Mnyele, Judy Seidman (born in the United States), and Miles Pelo (who later left for Cuba and Tanzania) are the most graphically distinctive Medu artists. Seidman’s style, which can veer to caricature, combines photographs, texts and drawings to effectively skewer targets like the SADF and musicians like Millie Jackson, who violated the international boycott of South Africa. Mnyele uses simple, expressive drawings and stencils, usually printed in monochrome, to convey the pathos of struggle. A moving poster for Heroes Day (celebrating the founding of the armed wing of the African National Congress) depicts a solemn, armed revolutionary joining hands with a child. Pelo designed covers for the Medu newsletter, and his portrayal of weary, stoic miners emerging from the mine’s darkness stands alongside any of Käthe Kollwitz’s affecting portraits of suffering workers. Some Medu posters show the influence of Soviet design, but it appears that the artists largely came by this influence through close connections with comrades from Cuba and Mozambique.
“Medu was a think tank for cultural revolution” argues African art scholar John Peffer. Artists like Mnyele, Seidman and Pelo wrestled with the question of what role artists—and other cultural workers—should play in the battle for revolutionary change. Exiled, jailed and murdered, the members of the Medu Art Ensemble certainly posed enough of a threat for the South African state to take them seriously, and it’s clear that they had begun to work out provisional answers to this question which were bearing fruit. This exhibition ought to help put the collective in the same conversation as better-known artists like Viktor Koretsky, who contributed to the visual record of the struggle for Third World liberation. (Luke A. Fidler)
“The People Shall Govern! Medu Art Ensemble and the Anti-Apartheid Poster” shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan Ave through September 2