Light Reading | Remembering Biko

By representing an intimate conversation between two friends in the struggle, an illustrator gets to imagine her heroes in action and contribute another small piece to history’s record.

Steve Biko died on 12 September 1977. I’m going back to an image I created to accompany an extract by poet Mafika Gwala commemorating Biko, in which Gwala remembers the last time they saw each other. 

The perk of being an illustrator, especially at New Frame, is that I get to bring my heroes to life. The people who inspire me, such as Biko, often died before I was born and only exist in my mind as black and white photographs in history books, and, of course, through their words: “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.” I get to reinterpret them in art and through this, get to know them as well as help their words live on.

Even as a kid, I always wanted to understand Biko’s driving force. What makes people like him give up their lives for a cause? That was my focus while reading Gwala’s account of this extraordinary fighter, trying to picture and then capture the complex mood of that last meeting.

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The author describes the moment in which two men joined by friendship and the struggle sit together in a simple shebeen, surrounded by people going about their daily lives. I tried to imagine their conversation, the underlying tone of things bigger than themselves, things worth living for – things worth dying for. 

What were those things? Was it the wellbeing of others around them? Or future generations? Did Biko die for people’s freedom today? Or did he see a more radical version of freedom that begins in the liberation of the minds of the oppressed and doesn’t stop short of the total liberation of African people, eventually “giving the world a more human face”? Did he die for a world we are yet to build? 

As an illustrator, working on a brief is so much more than just drawing a picture. It’s learning; it’s feeling; it’s a spark that keeps a flame going. Along with all the people who write, create and speak out, I hope my picture represents a small contribution to something bigger than us all. 

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