Revolutionary images with bold slogans were one tool this art collective used to advocate for social justice and pan-African solidarity. Through graphic design and poster production, members forcefully articulated a call for radical change, advocating for decolonization or majority nonwhite rule in South Africa and in the neighboring countries of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Defying a ban on their existence, the Medu collective at its height numbered as many as 50 South African and international artists, musicians, and writers. The People Shall Govern! Featured among its objects are more than 60 posters by members of the ensemble and related makers, all recently acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago. Surviving examples of Medu posters that were smuggled into South Africa and mounted in public spaces are exceedingly rare, as they were regularly confiscated or torn down on sight. With this recent acquisition, the Art Institute is home to the most comprehensive holding of these vibrant works outside South Africa. Additional items, on loan for this exhibition from former Medu members and archival sources in South Africa and Chicago, make clear how the Medu spirit of oppositional creativity transformed the culture of resistance in southern Africa during the late 20th century. Gift of Artworkers Retirement Society.
Collections in the Archives
The Foundation of The Collective
Various forms of racial intolerance were a direct effect of several-centuries-long colonization performed by some of the leading European monarchies. Although circumstances started changing during the 20th century, the African continent was still observed through the colonial lens, while the most gruesome example of institutionalized racial segregation on global scale happened in South Africa starting from and is known as Apartheid. This authoritarian discourse was based on the concept of white supremacy , which defined practically every aspect of human interaction.
Sources in Our Archive
Amarie Gipson June 5, Fortunately, just two weeks after my move from Houston to Chicago, I was given the opportunity to participate in a MacArthur Foundation—funded curatorial exchange geared toward examining the art ecosystems of Chicago and Cape Town, two cities with somewhat parallel histories of institutionalized segregation and systemic violence. We visited museums and gallery spaces, talking with artists, curators, and gallerists on issues of representation and equity and discussing how to navigate institutional practices that protect and extend white privilege. In , A4 opened an art center that reaches for continuous learning, quantum thinking, and serious play. Prior to the forced resettlement of Black and Colored South Africans in the late s and 70s, which was reinforced by legislation like the Group Areas Act of , District Six was a vibrant, working-class area in the inner city. We roamed the township with a group of student residents, who were alumni of a mentorship program called Lalela. Their generosity and patience was central to the way we engaged in conversation with the community. This culminating experience grounded me in the reality of apartheid, seeing the environmental contrast between the rich and the poor and the psychological effects of race-based oppression on Black South Africans. Traveling to South Africa made real the history that I was assigned to excavate.
Medu drew heavily on the experience of these disbanded associations and continued to be a forum for co-operation between South African exile and Botswana artists. Condemning apartheid through poems and images was therefore a common means of expression for these artists and writers. Medu was initially for Black artists with an embargo on White artists and foreigners. In , after huge debates, Medu members adopted the Freedom Charter beliefs. They agreed to open its membership to all who identified with the struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa. Sergio-Albio Gonzalez and Teresa Devant were the firstWhites and international artists who joined the group. Funding was received from a variety of overseas bodies, e. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and others. The underground funding came from the ANC underground structures based at their headquarters in Lusaka. During the time of the formation of Medu in Botswana, violent military activities were the order of the day in Southern Africa.