Siona O’Connell’s curated exhibition Promises and Lies, a photographic exhibition of the ANC in exile in Tanzania and Zambia, opens tomorrow. The CCA, in preparation for this, interviewed her project manager, Jade Nair, on the exhibition.
How did you come into contact with Laurie Sparham?
Paul Yule, who co-directed the Spring Queen movie with Siona, introduced Laurie to her. Yule knew that the subject matter would resonate with Siona, and she in turn, knew that this was the perfect moment for a show of this nature. Laurie and I have been in e-mail contact researching and planning the show.
Do you know how Sparham came to take these photographs?
He was working as a reportage photographer on assignment.
Why did Dr O’Connell and yourself choose to re-look at these photographs?
The over-arching theme of Siona’s research outputs is the afterlife of apartheid so, these photographs that document a historic turning point in apartheid’s trajectory are a valuable research source and archive.
I am drawn to these images and excited to work with them because, they are a glimpse into a component of the struggle that has a great deal of mystery around it. Umkhonto We’Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, documented here, were forced to operate mainly underground. To actually see images of their camps, training sessions and library is to see a world that has existed entirely in the shadows and, these images have, in fact, never before been seen.
In your press release you talk about the photographs offering “an opportunity to think about the growing chasm between the promise of freedom then and the reality of a contemporary moment marked by crisis and failure”, could you elaborate on this? What did they mean then and how do these images, from the past, relate to today?
I think that because these images are of activists on the “frontline” of the struggle, the idea of the anti-apartheid struggle becomes more than an ideological fight – there were real and physical consequences.
Moreover, in this collection of images, we aren’t only seeing an armed force but, full lives – there are wives, children and husbands. This serves as a reminder that these people made enormous sacrifices for their participation in the resistance.
As part of the show, there is a list of names of ANC members who died in exile. The list was far too long to include in its entirety, but even the portion included is far too long to justify the disappointments we are experiencing today.
One nation and one party cannot sacrifice that many lives to not fulfill ideals for which so many died.
What do the photographs mean to you?
These photographs are invaluable to me. Both as someone from a lineage of ANC members as well as a South African.
Documented, in this series, is a turning point in South Africa’s history and an enormous victory for the anti-apartheid struggle. Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi were just released from Robben Island, as Mandela would be shortly afterwards in February 1990.
I had the opportunity to sit down with my uncle, an MK veteran, who related stories and anecdotes about life in exile, on the Arusha camp in Tanzania and fighting the struggle through covert operations, and I realised: the faces pictured in this series, are not just political icons but, very human men and women who sacrificed for an entire nation.
The exhibition opens tomorrow, the 12th of May, at 18h00 at the Michaelis Gallery, UCT Hiddingh Campus, 31-37 Orange Street Cape Town.