Medu and the culture of liberation

In 1977, a group of "cultural workers"from the townships fled into exile in Gaborone, Botswana; including Molefe Pheto, from Mhloti Theatre. Thami Mnyele followed in 1978. In Gaborone they established the cultural organisation Medu Art Ensemble (Medu is a SePedi word meaning roots). Medu ran units specialising in music, theatre, graphics and visual arts, photography; and "research and production" (writing).

Over the eight years of its existence, Medu varied from 15 to as many as 50 members. Most were South Africa exiles.

The visual arts unit of Medu included: Thami Mnyele (exiled 1978), Miles Pelo (exiled 1981, left Botswana 1982 for Cuba, Tanzania, England), Heinz Klug (1979 - 1985 in Botswana), Judy Seidman (American-born, in Medu 1980 - 85), Gordon Metz (in Medu 1979 - 1985), Albio and Theresa Gonzales (Swedish/Spanish, in Gaborone from1979 - 1985), Philip Segola (Botswana citizen, occasional Medu member), Lentswe Mokgatle (in Medu from 1982- 85). (Zimbabwean artist George Nene was not formally a member of the group, but was in Gaborone Central Prison during this period, where he studied in art classes run by Medu for prisoners.)

Other cultural activists in Medu included: in literature and drama, Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa, Pheto Serote, Bachana Mokwena, Keorapetse and Baleka Khotsitsile, Marius Schoon, Patrick Fitzgerald and Thele Moema; in photography, Mike Kahn and Tim Williams; and in music, Jonas Gwangwa, Dennis Mpale, Steve Dyer, Hugh Masekela, Livy Phahle, Tony Cedras and journalist Gwen Ansell; other members included Muff Anderson, Mike Hamlyn (SA draft resister) and Uriel Abrahamse.

Medu members preferred to call themselves "cultural workers" rather than "artists". The term implied that art-makers should not see themselves as elite and isolated individuals, touched by creative madness or genius; but simply people doing their work, whether painting, music or poetry.

Medu saw its aesthetic and cultural approach as rooted in the strands of South African resistance and Africanist culture, building upon the work of cultural organisations such as Staffrider (which was barely a year old in 1978) and recently-formed community arts structures. Thami jokingly referred to Medu as "Staffrider in exile".

These strands came together in principles proclaiming: our art should speak to the immediate community, to the people who brought us up, who speak to us, who are living through what has made us as we are. The arts should build self -awareness and self-image, link our people's experiences, create new understandings of our lives, and pass on these understandings. From this should come a vision of how to take our community and our people forward.

This approach to the arts underpinned the forms as well as the content of Medu's cultural production. Images and symbols grew through collective discussion and participation; discussions to which individual artists might bring their own vision and inspiration. Discussions regularly drew upon all Medu members - including those with little visual arts background - to work through the "message" of posters and graphics. Each artist should actively develop skills and techniques for expression and production, but also each individual would work with others of their community to find ways to express themselves.

Gaborone was also a mere fourteen kilometers from the South African border. Ideas and principles were cross-hatched with groups inside the country: from the discourse around Staffrider magazine, to the newly-formed Cape Arts Project and Junction Avenue in Johannesburg. Artists continually moved between these groups and Medu.

Perhaps Medu in this period had some small advantage in developing this discourse over groups "inside": the war was (mostly) over the border; there was time for discussion; there was less fear of a crack-down. There was less overt censorship, and less need for self-censorship. (By 1982, the South African regime routinely assassinated people in neighbouring countries; the Botswana government put more pressure on Medu: official Medu posters for a time did not show guns and armed struggle. Medu still produced these, but unsigned.)

Poster production

From 1979, Medu produced political posters. The first posters were silkscreened, with the assistance of Basil Johns and Adrian Kohler, two South African artists working for the Botswana National Art Gallery (later, they formed the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town). Over the next six years, Medu produced over 50 posters.

Poster-making was a well-conceived and nurtured child within Medu's artistic arms. Members argued that few people in South Africa's townships would see or interact with "fine art" displayed in suburban (white) galleries or well-off private homes. But many people would take to heart images, symbols and slogans that they did see, that spoke to events around them. Thus, the form would be printed posters, slipped into the country, stuck up on walls at night, or in offices. These would be seen and valued by people walking past, even if they were ripped down later by the security police. These would become our messagers.

Function and aesthetic in Medu

Medu posters were intended to fill a function. But this function was not merely to fulfill a short-term objective to inform people about a specific event, but to build a broader sense of community and of direction. This was equated to the "functionalism" of pre-colonial African art. Thami Mnyele wrote:

"For me as craftsman, the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for my people. This is culture."

Function did not, in this view, refute aesthetic concerns; rather, it directs how one approaches aesthetics and "the artistic task". Later, Dikobe wa Mogale Martins wrote in his paper The Necessity of Art for National Liberation:

"Our Art must become a process -- a living, growing thing that people can relate to, identify with, be part of, understand; not a mysterious world, a universe apart from them.

"The task of a vital South African art practice demands of us to confront the reality of 'Total Strategy' with a response that holds artistic, social and political meaning.

Artists will have to face up to and challenge the prevailing power structure, by raising the levels of consciousness, by expanding the boundaries of visual and conceptual experiences.

"This is one function of the creative imagination amongst others; and in this lies a unique power, the power to pose alternatives and to induce people to think; the power to combat the specific form that cultural apartheid takes within the sphere of artistic production."

Medu debated - sometimes endlessly - the issues of realism. Medu members drew imagery from life around them:

"worked from sketches of people, incidents and objects. But these drawings were not located within the framework of (Western) academic visual realism or 19th century impressionism. Rather, the drawn images became symbols in themselves, showing relationships that might or could or should exist.

Thami condemned distortion only where it detracted from the message of the work; the essential communication with the community:

"... the images are distracted without obvious course, distortion of the limbs is acute. The subject matter is mystified and at this extent the work has lost integration with the real things in our life...The disappointing fact about this approach to art is that the picture is deprived of that essential dynamic element: immediacy of communication with the community, the natural makers and consumers of art."

He pointed out that African art used "unreal" elements to enhance, not distract from the message:

"The elements of distortion, mystification, abstraction, romanticism are not negative in themselves and can be put to positive and effective use, as in the indigenous idiom. This calls for maturity of temperament, clearer social awareness and skill of the working hand."

Medu artists also explored issues of portraying narrative and time, creating sequence on a two-dimensional space through directing the viewer's perception across the array of images. From 1982, Thami Mnyele embarked on several "narrative" drawings, taking the viewer through a story-line to the projected future.

Photography provided a bottomless well for images of struggle in Southern Africa. Photos were transformed into new graphics - "reported" in their own right, taken as symbols, aggregated within collages, or inspiring drawn images. Several posters were made up of photo-collages; changing meaning through new interrelations of images, challenging the actuality of each image.

Posters also reiterated and developed liberation and ANC symbols. In 1984, Thami Mnyele designed the ANC logo currently used today: the hand, shield, spear and wheel.

Function also prescribed the form that the work took. A poster was never intended to become a permanent and unchanging monument to an individual's genius, hung on a museum wall. That stereotype of visual art grows out of perceiving the artwork as a commercial product, its value dependant on being an isolated, individualist "original". It fitted neither the works that were made, the messages transmited, nor the processes of making and transmission. People should see and remember images, and use them - over and over again. These images were not expected to stay on the walls, especially in a museum that most of the population would never enter. The pictures should be picked up and used: redrawn, recast, remembered, repeated. This was not "copying" or "uncreative"; it was the process of building a new visual language.

Collective process

"The act of creating art is not different from the act of building a bridge - it is the work of many hands." - Thami Mnyele

Culture as a collective product lay at the roots of all of these theoretical approaches - and collectivity was nurtured through all of the art forms. Dikobe wa Mogale Martins said:

"Many of these cultural forms are becoming more and more participatory. Theatre is demanding audience participation and response. Poetry readings and book discussions are becoming popular. Musicians are also making music for the mind, and the feet, of course.

"Our art must become a process - a living, growing thing that people can relate to, identify with, be part of, understand and not a mysterious world a universe apart from them."

Unlike the performing arts, however, visual artists had neither traditions nor processes that led to collective input. So, Medu visual artists experimented with new production processes. Medu regularly drew upon all Medu members - including those with little visual arts background - to discuss the "message" of posters and graphics. Images and symbols, designs and slogans, grew through collective discussion and participation. Individual artists might, and should, bring their own vision and inspiration - but these would be tested against a group. Each artist should actively develop their own skills and techniques for expression and production; each would also be expected to work with, and to train others of their community, to find effective means of expression. Collective creativity was not the antithesis of the individual artist but the sea within which the artist swims - like, Thami argued, the classic guerrilla amongst the people.

The group experimented at which stage in a drawing the collective should work together; and at which stage one person's skills took up the task. Generally, it was felt it was a rather bad idea to bring collective criticism after a single person had completed a work, drawing their heart out alone. At this stage the individual was likely to take the comments, suggestions and criticism as a personal attack, not an attempt to give a wider perspective.

Finally, Medu searched for methods of producing graphics that used materials and skills that could be made available in community organisations and townships. Silkscreening could be developed as a relatively low-cost and available technology. Medu explored ways to adopt newer silkscreen (such as photo stencil) technologies to township conditions, where people might not have running water or electricity. By 1984 the graphics unit proposed producing and distributing the "silkscreen workshop in a suitcase". This would be a portable box (50 cm x 75cm x15cm) with an silkscreen press that could print A2 posters, ink, squeegee, and stencil material. This would enable township organisations to make posters even under ill-equipped or illegal conditions. With the assistance of Dutch donors, a few pilot suitcases were built; but following Medu's destruction in 1985, they were not put into use.

It was in this context that Medu hosted the 1982 Gaborone Culture and Resistance Festival.

After the Culture and Resistance Festival, however, Medu's position in Botswana became increasingly tenuous. SADF raids into Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland, and attacks on individuals in Botswana, increased dramatically after 1982. The Botswana government, while sympathetic, pressured people to play down links with the liberation movement.

On June 14, 1985, the SADF raided Gaborone, killing twelve people, including artist Thami Mnyele, and Medu treasurer Mike Hamlyn; a number of other houses of Medu members were destroyed, and people killed in them. Medu ceased to exist overnight. Many Medu members left the country; others remained in Botswana as members of the underground, not as artists in residence.


Last updated : 19-Jan-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011