Address by Ms Ngw Botha, Deputy Minister at the Opening of the Rorke’s Drift Empowering Prints Exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery

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14 Jul 2004

Programme Director, Dr Khoza
Dr. Yvonne Muthien and MTN Foundation Representatives
Curators:Ms Philippa Hobbs and Ms Elizabeth Rankin
Judge Albie Sachs
Board Members and Staff of the Johannesburg Art Gallery
Artists and Cultural Practitioners
Officials of the Johannesburg Metro
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good Evening! It is, indeed, a privilege and an honour for me to be invited to address this very prestigious occasion, the grand finale opening of the historic retrospective exhibition. I am informed that this exhibition showcases more than 120 art works produced during the period between 1962 and 1982 by students who were trained at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. I have been able to view some of the impressive art works earlier and I will continue to do that later.

From the outset, we would like to congratulate Ms Hobbs and Ms Rankin for a remarkable book and the idea of putting together this collection of art work for this exhibition. We would also like to thank the MTN Foundation for supporting this initiative and adopting it as a key Arts and Culture flagship project. We understand that the exhibition has travelled to seven (7) venues already and I am certain that it will go down in the annals of South African art history. Many of the artists whose work is exhibited here were probably not known before, but I am almost certain that they will, henceforth, become household names. Words cannot adequately express what this project means to us as the Ministry and Department of Arts and Culture, in the first instance, but also to us, as government and as a country. We are very, very grateful to all who have contributed in so many different ways to make this project a success.

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We would also like to acknowledge the important and critical role played by our Swedish partners. Sweden has a long association with the liberation movement of South Africa which started, probably, around the 1960’s. Prior to 1994 the people of Sweden provided support mainly relating to the anti-apartheid campaign. After 1994 our governments, that is, South African and Swedish governments have entered into a bilateral agreement. A month ago, our Minister Pallo Jordan and Sweden’s Minister of Culture, Minister Marita Ulvskog, signed an historic agreement that puts into effect the Swedish/South African Cultural Partnership Programme. This association and friendship between our two countries, that was started in the difficult days of Rorke’s Drift and others, is invaluable and must be continued and nurtured.

Rorke’s Drift, the place, has rather an interesting history, from being the site of a rather freakish conquest of the Zulu warriors by a small company of the British regiment in the 19th century to becoming a site of struggle for the restoration of our human dignity, freedom and democracy in the 20th century.

So Rorke’s Drift should not only be remembered for the Battle of Rorke’s Drift but rather, moreso, it must be remembered for the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre and the significant contribution it has made towards the liberation of our people.

The Art and Craft Centre was established around 1960 at the height of repression under the apartheid regime which denied all forms of advancement to Black people. The liberation movements were banned, a state of emergency was declared and many of our political leaders were arrested. Peder and Ulla Gowenius came just at that time which was the right time.

They were, indeed, a godsend. They created the space for young people, tormented in their own country, to deal with their pain and anger and to express their hopes and dreams in the medium of art. As Peder Gowenius puts it: “The possibility of expressing oneself in art is like giving language to the speechless. A first step towards freedom. Without language we are powerless.”

Ulla and Pedder Gowenius were recruited as art graduates, who between them had specialized in textile art, weaving, print-making and fine arts. They risked their lives by accepting the challenge of teaching at the Art and Craft Centre. The only other arts training centre was the Polly Street Art Centre which, I believe, offered once a week art classes under Cecil Skotnesand and other artists. These were probably the only two art centres or two of a few of these initiatives at the time.

Despite the repression, it seems that news of the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre spread far and wide and the demand increased. It attracted artists from all over South Africa and the region, just looking at the names of the students that appear in the book, such as, Azaria Mbatha, Allina Ndebele, John Muafangejo (from Namibia), Charles Nkosi, Dan Rakgoathe and later Pat Moutla, Thami Mynele and Paul Sibisi.

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I have been informed that the works of Azaria Mbatha and John Muafangejo are in both public and private collections. I have also been told that Thami Mynele also produced a large body of art work. He was sadly killed in his youth during apartheid regime’s raid into Botswana in the mid-80’s, where he lived and worked in a collective. I understand that his assassins also destroyed a large portfolio of his work.

I may not have met everybody present here today but I am told that we are honoured to have, amongst us today some of the former students of the Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft Centre, artists : Bongi Dhlomo, Pat Moutla, Maribi Mamabolo, Dumisani Mabaso, Charles Nkosi, July Diniso and Mzwake Mhlabati. The 120 or so prints exhibited here today, attest not only to your artistic talent but also to the spirit of the arts and the spirit of Rorke’s Drift that Judge Sachs referred to earlier.

Your works of art are very powerful, indeed. They certainly provided the answer to the question raised about the concept of art by Peder Gowenius and his contemporaries while they were studying at the school of art in Stockholm, which was: “What was the use of it all, painting pictures, making sculptures or printing graphic works?” We thank you for your contribution towards the restoration of our human dignity, towards our freedom and democracy. We would like to encourage you to continue with the outstanding work you are doing.

You probably will remember that you were able to influence students of Fine Arts from other institutions, who became interested in the work you were doing. A former student of University of Durban-Westville told me recently that you were a source of strength and inspiration to them. She says that in the early 70s, when they heard of the success of the Centre, they travelled to Rorke’s Drift to make contact with the students there. The UDW students then invited three students from Rorke’s Drift with a view to working together during the December holidays at the University Studio in Durban. This initiative was frustrated the day the Rorke’s Drift students arrived. Someone apparently complained to the authorities and all six students were detained for a day by the police. I am told that the lecturer, who had given permission for the students of Rorke’s Drift and UDW to work together, was summarily dismissed by the authorities of UDW.

This exhibition is, therefore, a powerful witness to the history of the region during the darkest days of repression. The artists mirror society and reveal the social milieu of the time. This exhibition also enables us to rewrite our history and to understand who we are. In this way we would be better reconciled with our past and enhance the process of social cohesion and nation-building.

You will probably remember that earlier this year our President, in his State of Nation Address, reminded us that as Government we committed ourselves, amongst other things, to:

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  • “move our country forward decisively towards the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment of our country, taking care to enhance the process of social cohesion; and
  • achieve further and visible advances with regard to the improvement of the quality of life of people, affecting many critical areas of social existence, including health, safety and security, moral regeneration, social cohesion, opening the doors of culture and education to all including sport and recreation.”

Our Ministry and Department’s responsibility is to realize the full potential of arts and culture in social and economic development, nurture creativity and innovation, and promote the diverse heritage of our nation.

We have put strategies in place to meet these challenges. This exhibition, as well as many similar initiatives, opens opportunities for social and economic activities that would help us improve the quality of life of all our people. For example, the story telling in the lino-prints have a potential for artists to collaborate with playwrights and writers which could lead to film, video or theatrical productions. It could lead to musical performances too. This is a challenge for our Ministry and Department. As Minister Pallo Jordan puts it, he says of the Department of Arts and Culture: “I prefer to project it as the custodian of South Africa’s diverse cultural, artistic and linguistic heritage”. He goes on to say that “it can also be regarded as the depository of our collective national memory”.

Our Government promotes partnerships between itself and other Governments, organizations, individuals, and other relevant institutions to achieve its broad stated objectives of addressing poverty, unemployment, economic growth and a better life for all.

This is an invitation to the private sector, state-owned enterprises, organs of civil society and community-based organisations to enter into partnerships with government to promote these broad objectives.

Once more, on behalf of our Ministry and Department of Arts and Culture, we would like to thank the MTN Foundation, Mesdames Hobbs and Rankin and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, our Swedish partners and pioneers, and all our Artists (I trust I haven’t left out anyone else) for the contribution they are making towards the promotion of arts and nation building.

I now declare this exhibition open and please enjoy it.

I thank you.