By MARSHA LEDERMAN
Monday, June 11, 2018
WINNIPEG -- hen it opened in 2008, W the Nelson Mandela exhibition at Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum was meant to be a temporary show. A decade later, it is still there - so popular that the museum built a new wing. Mandela, who died in 2013, toured through the original exhibition in a golf cart with museum founder and director Christopher Till.
"I drove him through his life," Till says. "He was amazed."
The museum created a touring version that has travelled to institutions all over the world. Now, for the first time, another museum has taken the exhibition and made not only small adjustments to suit the location and language, but reimagined it, creating something essentially new from the original South African bones.
Mandela: Struggle for Freedom has just opened at The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, a few weeks ahead of the centenary of Mandela's birth. It not only adds a Canadian context to the exhibition, but looks beyond Mandela the man in order to contextualize his astonishing achievements.
In its research, CMHR officials learned something surprising that helped shape the show: Canadians were widely familiar with Mandela, the iconic anti-apartheid activist who spent 27 years in prison and later became president of South Africa. But a shocking number of survey respondents had never even heard the word "apartheid."
Apartheid - "apartness" in the Afrikaans language - was the race-based political and legal system brought in by the National Party, elected in 1948, by an almost exclusively white electorate in a country with a large black majority.
"It's really important to keep this type of history in the common vocabulary. Otherwise, how can we learn from mistakes in the past?" says Helen Delacretaz, CMHR's director of exhibitions.
"This isn't distant past. This is very recent past."
The show's lead curator, Isabelle Masson, can attest to that.
Back when she was a CEGEP student in Quebec, she took time off to travel, and ended up in South Africa - where she walked into history. It was 1994; the country was holding its historic democratic elections. She stayed for nearly a year. It was "absolutely, completely" life-changing, she says.
"That had a profound impact on me. It really gave me a passion for politics that's never died since.
... It took a long time to build this show, but the passion kept me going."
Walking into the exhibition, the visitor is immersed immediately in the shock of apartheid, confronted by a blown-up photograph of a white boy and a black woman - his family's domestic servant. He is sitting on a bench marked "Europeans only." The woman is relegated to leaning on the bench behind him.
In front of the photo is an actual green bench with "Europeans Only" in the same all-caps font. It's a reproduction, but still powerful.
Entering the space and seeing that "was traumatic for me," says Dolana Mogadime. Prof. Mogadime, daughter of an anti-apartheid activist, was born in South Africa, moved to Canada as a child in the 1970s and is now an associate professor of education at Brock University. "I didn't know that I was going to feel that way when I saw it, but it just brought up all those emotions of a world that's separate." Around the first corner, the visitor is stopped in their tracks by a dramatic "wall of laws" - a nearly five-metre-high barrage of racist signage, pointing to segregated bathrooms, beaches, staircases, taxi stands; and excerpts from restrictive legislation, such as laws that prohibited white and nonwhite people from marrying - or even having physical relations with each other.
The show highlights Canadians' role in the fight against apartheid. Canada was a vocal critic - evidenced by strong speeches by former prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney, and video interviews with human-rights activist Stephen Lewis and Prof. Mogadime's mother, Caroline Goodie Mogadime.
"As Mandela says, they regarded us as animals," she says in the video.
Nearby is Canada's Golden Book signed by Mandela during his June, 1990, visit, just a few months after his release from prison. "Canada has given the people of South Africa enormous strength and courage," the handwritten message begins.
It is one of three Mandela artifacts in the show; there is also a letter he wrote to an anti-apartheid activist from prison, and a notebook from 1991, during negotiations for democracy with the government of former president F.W. de Klerk. "If de Klerk is not committed," he wrote, "we must make him committed."
The exhibition starts entirely in black and white, with colour slowly added through each of its five sections.
The first zone, "Apartheid," establishes the context for the struggle and Mandela's rise. "Defiance" features a young Mandela in a clandestine television interview conducted while he was living underground to avoid arrest.
"Repression" deals with Mandela's trial and incarceration, including his difficult separation from his wife, Winnie, and his children. This section includes a technologically enhanced, visitor-activated replica prison cell, the exact size of the tiny Robben Island cell where Mandela was confined for 18 years. Walking in triggers a silhouette projection on the wall - the shadow of a man (meant to be Mandela) boxing, pacing, reading; followed by short films using Mandela's own voice.
The penultimate zone, "Mobilization," is a walk through contrast: to the left, a large video screen feels alive with singing, colourful protestors on the move; to the right is an enormous armoured military tank. It is stationary, stuck in a different time.
The final section, "Freedom," is meant to project hope, but also a strong sense that the struggle is not over - neither in South Africa or elsewhere.
"We need to hold up the mirror to ourselves and measure it against what was taking place.
Are we any better?" says Till, attending the show's opening in Winnipeg. "What are you going to do about what you've seen here?
Because this isn't a history lesson," he continues. "It's actually a wake-up call."
Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg until Jan. 6, 2019.
South African born Canadian Dolana Mogadime, pictured sitting on a bench marked 'Europeans Only' as an active resistance at Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, says seeing the exhibit was 'traumatic' for her and 'brought up all those emotions of a world that's separate.'
MARSHA LEDERMAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL