The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s goal to motivate healing through understanding was the inspiration for a provocative and moving series of 48 paintings produced by South African-American artist Madelaine Georgette, recently donated to Wits University by the artist.
The collection, entitled A Just Society, will be exhibited between 22 August and 29 September 2012 at the Origins Centre, before being absorbed into the University’s prestigious and expansive art collection.
“The aim of the exhibition is to engage with students and the public. We hope to educate, to stimulate discussion and to provide insight into a topic that by now should be seared into the conscience and consciousness of every South African,” says Natalie Knight, curator of the exhibition.
The collection, completed over a five-year period, covers four separate series. Phase one, entitled Apartheid, portrays the structures and physical divisions of the political system, as well as infringements on human rights. Here, collage techniques are used to convey the concepts of land division and fragmentation.
Phase two – Impact on Women and Children – illustrates the particular burden placed on more vulnerable sectors of society during the years of oppression. The artworks are representational and individual figures are imaginary.
The third phase, Institutional Arrangements, examines the establishments that influenced every aspect of life under apartheid, such as the courts and the church. Thick lines intersecting these images refer to the enforced societal barriers.
The last phase – Truth, Justice, Reconciliation – explores the processes of seeking truth and striving for justice and reconciliation. By their very nature, these images are abstract and portray a personal symbolic language developed by the artist to signify the essence of an ongoing activity. The human cell, for example, as an essential determinant of behaviour, indicates our interconnectedness, while also resembling the chains of a restricted society.
Georgette lived in South Africa for 27 years before settling in the United States of America.
“I was deeply moved by the relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule under Presidents Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk,” she comments.
Most of her father’s family had been killed during the Holocaust and thus the history of oppression touched her life.
“I realised that human beings around the globe have not learned the lessons of war. Instead one group succeeds another and former victims become the new perpetrators as savage cycles of endless violence are perpetrated in the name of revenge. South Africa consciously chose a different path – a unique courageous road to peace, to create light from their darkness,” she adds.
The materials used in the artworks are a metaphor for some of the work’s content. Mixed media and the process of collage reflect the mélange of cultures and races, the complexity, layers and diversity of South African society.
A recurring feature is the use of shards of clay on which names, events, dates and locations appear. The shards are misshapen and unique like people’s lives; they are fragile and of the land. Georgette’s white writing on a black ground is further symbolic of white domination. Text is deliberately difficult to read, just as speaking the truth was so hard and painful to do.
Prof. Kathy Munro, who accepted the donation in 2011 on behalf of the Faculty of Commerce Law and Management, when serving in the office of the Dean, said: “Georgette selected Wits as the recipient of the donation as she is a Wits alumna, having studied towards a BA degree in 1966. She recognised that Wits had played a major role as a site of fierce protest against apartheid. Lecturers and students had sacrificed in the fight against racism, often at a personal cost. They spoke, wrote, and researched with passion, courage and honesty through decades of resistance.”
A companion handbook edited by Knight, documenting the entire collection, will be launched to coincide with the exhibition.
Georgette holds a Bachelor of Fine Art in painting/drawing, a BA in Political Science (Summa Cum Laude) and an MA in Political Economy. While managing an economic and public policy consulting business, she gradually shifted her energies into developing her artistic interests and since 1997 has devoted herself entirely to a professional art career. She has had 13 solo exhibitions and participated in 10 international exhibitions as well as numerous group exhibitions in USA. Her work on this TRC project was supported, in part, by four grants from both public and private institutions in the USA and has been exhibited throughout the greater Seattle area and Portland.
The exhibition is open from Monday-Friday from 09h00-17h00 and on Saturdays from 09h00-13h00. On Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 18h30 Georgette will deliver a lecture on her work, and on Saturday, 1 September 2012 at 10h30 she will conduct a walkabout of the exhibition. Booking for these two events must be made through the Wits Origins Centre: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also read the Wits Review article