The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was coloured by the work of poets, who secretly constructed slogans to fit the hearts and lips of everyone, and printmakers who clandestinely silkscreened illegal posters and T-shirts on kitchen tables at night. The words and images were containers of anger, but the people who made them often gave up their artistic egos in giving over their art to the service of politics.
Born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in the United States in 1951, Judy Seidman travelled between the US and Africa during her formative years, studying art and sociology in Wisconsin and putting her skills to work from 1972. In Botswana in the early 1980s, she met South African exiles such as Thami Mnyele, Molefe Petu, Lentswe Mokgatle and other artists and writers associated with the Medu Art Ensemble in Gaborone, before she encountered apartheid South Africa.
Ignoring threats from the South African government, Seidman stayed in Gaborone after the South African Defence Force attack on Medu in 1985, which killed 12 of the organisation’s members, including Mnyele.
Drawn Lines at Museum Africa until January 2020 is Seidman’s solo-cum-retrospective exhibition, which displays 80 framed works and four cabinets of extraordinary drawings and journals. It bleeds over into Seidman’s advocacy work and is a summative gesture of a career spent with a heart full of fire.
By all accounts, it’s an important show. And it’s beautiful. But its placement in a crummy, undignified room in Newtown’s Museum Africa seems like a kick in the face when considering the project’s value.
Beleaguered Museum Africa
The quasi-industrial space of Museum Africa was launched 25 years ago in a repurposed Africana Museum. The grand architecture of John Gubbins was stripped to the bone yielding a large warehouse-like space with piping on the inside and a network of ramps, vaguely evocative of the unusual structure of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Then, this space sparkled with the hopes of a new democratic nation and well-intentioned enthusiasm, which deemed it one of Joburg’s most important buildings.
But 25 years later, while it feels like the appropriate venue for Seidman’s solo exhibition because of its history, it is an exhibiting space fraught with a palpable sense of abandonment. It’s empty of visitors, the facilities are long broken and there are no clear pointers to the room in which the exhibition is held.
Down one ramp, up another, there’s the space. But it’s obscured in part by the words “Joburg’s Firsts” emblazoned across the drywall. This is the entrance to a text-heavy and colonialist-laden exhibition of different “firsts” in the city, from typewriters to telephones, mayoral chains to medical equipment. Ignore this, walk into the other half of the space, and it is here that you get to catch your breath and finally look at Seidman’s considerable body of work.
In this context, you discover Seidman’s sophisticated line work, which captures people with a ballpoint pen, as it paints jazz pianos crumbling amid fire and women with babies on their backs. Seidman’s approach is not doggedly naturalistic: bodies distort against a backdrop of anger, music and hope.
Art in motion
In the corner of the exhibition space there is an installation of photographs, objects and posters, and here many inflammatory images are seen in context. “More than faces and vaginas” shrieks one set of displays of women protesting abuse. “Pissed off woman” declares a T-shirt in another display cabinet. Gazing at this installation, you get to see the protests not for their political slants or historical effectiveness, but for their potency as visual art in motion.
Seidman has been at pains to give struggle art a place in the trajectory of South African art. It’s a complicated ask: often political posters and slogans are crafted not by people with artistic skill, but ones with convictions. And this is where Seidman’s work has edge. Her Medu Ensemble print bearing the words “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed” became a cornerstone protest image. Others, blending image and text, are seared into your memory because of their presence in historical protests. You may never have associated them with Seidman.
This exhibition is a part of Seidman’s autobiographical project published in a book bearing the same title, in 2017. Its importance slips into disregard in the space where it is displayed, but the reality of a publication that can be enjoyed in any context lends hope. This material is vital to an archived understanding of who we are as South Africans and the rich, bloody texture of protest that defined the anti-apartheid movement.