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Kronos

On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
Print version ISSN 0259-0190

Kronos vol.42 n.1 Cape Town Nov. 2016

http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2309-9585/2016/v42a10 

ARTICLES

 

Interment: re-framing the death of the Red Location Museum building (2006 - 2013)

 

 

Michelle Smith

University of Fort Hare

 

 


ABSTRACT

The design and construction of the Red Location Precinct was the culmination of a national architectural competition, the first outcome of which was the Red Location Museum. Situated in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, the materiality of the township impressed itself on the factory-styled museum building. However, the residents of New Brighton were not unanimously in favour of the building of a cultural precinct and museum, and through a number of protests, closed down the museum. Renaming it 'a house for dead people', the community began to disassemble the museum building. The museum is now a ruin, its frame decomposing. Rather than staging the porousness between an inside and an outside of the museum - and between the past and present, the real and the simulated, the living and the dead - as a problem to be worked out in dialogue, the museum has, by framing the struggle against apartheid commemoratively, incorporated the residents of New Brighton into what is called here a 'mortificationary complex'. This article elaborates the concept of the frame as it works through the displays within the Red Location Museum and its building, reframed by Simon Gush's installation, Red. Juxtaposing Red and the Red Location Museum allows the affects and effects of this artwork to seep beyond the confines of the events with which it explicitly grapples. Through the concept of the frame, this encounter asks that we rethink the materiality of the photograph, the commemoration of the struggle against apartheid, and the ways in which death marks the sights and sites of public history in museums after 1994.


 

 

As the story goes, in 1990 at the Mercedes-Benz factory in East London, in the midst of protracted and tumultuous labour disputes - including a wild-cat, sleep-in strike that saw the removal of strikers by the police and approximately 500 strikers being dismissed - workers assembled a top-of-the-range red 500SE for Nelson Mandela, which they delivered to him after his release from prison.1 Mercedes-Benz provided the parts for the car, but the initiative for the Mandela car came from the workers, who chose the model and colour, and assembled it afterhours, without fault and without additional pay. It is this set of historical events that artist Simon Gush takes as the subject for his installation, Red, a 'speculative reconstruction' of the Mandela car, accompanied by a documentary film made with James Cairns and strike uniforms designed by Mokotjo Mohulo.2

After being shown at the Goethe Institute gallery in Johannesburg in 2014, Red was exhibited in 2015 at the Ann Bryant, a large East London home that has been converted into an art gallery. This was the same venue for the workshop 'Red Assembly: Time and Work', which asked participants to think about 'the question of what it would mean to place art at the centre of a historical reading'.3 I would like here to push this call, perhaps even stretch it; to ask what it would mean to place this artwork at the centre of an historical reading beyond its immediate field of reference. In specific, I place Red alongside - and within the same frame, a concept I return to below - exhibitions of struggle history in the now closed Red Location Museum in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.

The naming of the Red Location Museum as a 'house for dead people'4 signals two aspects of the museum; its building - the architecture - and that which it holds and displays inside. The objects that proliferate inside the museum walls are particular kinds of photographs, which as I argue below, are more than mere representations when you consider the inside and outside, the location and displays and the excess of the photograph as impacting on each other.

The history of New Brighton has been burdened with death and struggle, from its development in the earlytwentieth century (which was rationalised by a colonial government as a way of curbing the spread of the bubonic plaque), through the struggle against apartheid, to the current residents' continuing struggle against poverty and exploitation.5 In what follows, I read the mobilisation of images in the exhibitions of the Red Location Museum and their visualisation of death. The argument is that, at the Red Location Museum, death frames the site of public history and the narrative of the struggle against apartheid, which becomes the display of suffering. This argument is made with reference to a particular photograph that forms a part of the display of the Langa Massacre of 1985,6 but which comes to frame the other exhibitions in the museum. Indeed, it comes to incorporate the 'community' outside the museum as well. I pay attention here to how 'the photograph' comes to represent the death of the black body and produce, as an unintended effect, the mortification of the residents of this township. If death and struggle preside over and run through the history of New Brighton, then so too does a struggle against mortification.

Similarly, death is figured in Red through the invocation of mourning as a condition of the post-apartheid. In the narrative of the documentary, the workers present Mandela with a car the colour of which symbolises, for him, the lives lost during the struggle. The car stands in for those who have been lost in the struggle, and it was, as Phillip Groom explains, carried off the assembly line - like a coffin - the assembly of the car as much a work of mourning as a labour of love.7Red presents this notion as a question to think about rather than a claim to be affirmed. Juxtaposing Red and the Red Location Museum, I want to suggest, allows the affects and effects of this artwork to seep beyond the confines of the events with which it explicitly grapples.

 

'A house for dead people'

In 1998, very soon after the demise of the apartheid government and the 1980s period of protest and activism, the administration and finance committee of the City Council decided that the design and construction of the Red Location Precinct should be the outcome of a national architectural competition. Styled on the Apartheid Museum, the precinct would reconstruct or restore the existing original corrugated iron housing and entail the building of an Art Gallery, a Centre for Creative Arts, a market, a library, a hall and conference centre.8 The winners of this competition - Noero Wolff Architects, established in Johannesburg and currently based in Cape Town - were announced on 10 December 1998. Several years later, in 2003, construction began on the Red Location Museum, which became accessible to the public in November 2006. The architectural design of the Red Location Museum was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.9 When this was announced to the public, Noero was quoted as saying, 'What is important to stress is that this is not just about doing good things for poor people, but giving poor people world-class architecture too.'10 At first, this utterance is empty of meaning, at least with regard to what this means to the people of New Brighton in any practical sense. It does draw attention to the fact that the architectural design of the museum is rendered novel on account of its location. What is important here is that the museum's responsibility entailed not only a curatorial narrative, but also an intense proximity between the site of the museum and the residents of New Brighton.11 Furthermore, in the building of the museum precinct 'the materiality of the township was deployed as the conceptual starting point' for Noero Wolff Architects.12

The museum is not situated very far from the road that leads into New Brighton after you have taken the Deal Party turnoff from the highway.13 After driving along a neglected road, you very soon reach the sign instructing you to turn right in the direction of the museum. The intention is to have the sign to the museum, and the museum to which it directs visitors, form part of the New Brighton landscape. The museum, and the rest of the precinct, however, commandeers the space; its grandeur is in stark contrast to the dwellings around it, in which it assumes a place. A photograph in an annex in the museum's second-phase business plan shows an attempt to present a view of the building from one of the untarred, littered side streets which joins onto the perfectly maintained, cemented area around the museum structure and its neighbouring precinct buildings; a scene that shows life proceeding, rather unaffected, for the residents, with children wandering around, two women sitting next to each other doing their laundry, and some wandering animals. Towering above this scene is the 'saw-tooth roof' of the factory-styled building of the Red Location Museum.14

It is from the corrugated iron structures, mentioned above, which the project sought to restore and reconstruct, that the Red Location takes its name. The structures come from 1903 when they were used during the South African War (specifically in Uitenhage and De Aar). Afterwards, corrugated iron was used to erect shack dwellings in the area where the Red Location is situated.15 The rust that formed on the corrugated iron gave the area its name. There are four such structures used in the museum. In 2005, a proposal was written, as part of the phased planning of the precinct, suggesting ways of preserving them. One became an installation, lodged outside the art gallery of the cultural precinct. Inside the museum these structures are reproduced, although different in scale - they reach to the ceiling of the museum building - as memory boxes (six metres long and wide, 12 metres high), 'inspired by the boxes that migrant workers used to accommodate their prized possessions when separated from their families'.16 To recreate the rusty red colour of the old shack dwellings, these memory boxes were made with corten or weathered steel, which has a rust-like appearance.

Entering one of the 12 structures produces the sensation of being 'inside' a shack, or what is meant to resemble the homes of the residents around the precinct, with the 'inside' of the other memory boxes 'offering a set of different memories of struggle in South Africa'.17 Yet the structures outside the museum, the homes of the New Brighton residents, can and do quite literally corrode, as they are precariously vulnerable to the elements. The worker, as an oppressed figure of the struggle, further informs the idea of this museum spatially and materially in the very design and structure of the factory-like building of the museum. These two types of structures, the shack and the factory, come to represent a 'home aesthetic'18 of the museum 'intended to make associations between community and workers'.19

Upon the completion of the Red Location Museum building in 2005, a year before it opened to the 'public', the residents living in the area surrounding the museum and precinct structure, dumped 'human waste buckets' and burned tyres on the front steps to the building.20 A number of residents were angered by the amount of money spent on the cultural precinct, of which more will be said below, instead of being spent on the improvement of their own living conditions.21 It also seems obvious that this should not be a choice in the first place, that decent living conditions and a museum should both be possible for the people living in the area. These actions were a pointed response to the manifestation of Port Elizabeth City Council's intentions of celebrating and commemorating a history of struggle and those who died in New Brighton for the end of oppression. This reaction to the museum is in stark contrast to Professor and Head of the Institute for African Renaissance Studies and the University of South Africa Vuyisile Msila's perceptions of the work that the museum does. The museum, for him, has a liberatory function. He writes that the Red Location Museum's use of memory 'is linked to freedom from bondage', that the representation of traumatic memory and experience can yield a positive result.22 If this is the supposed function of museums in general and the Red Location Museum in particular, then we must wonder about whether the residents' resistance and protest is not motivated by more than the need for basic services. The Red Location Museum and the precinct have been closed since October 2013 following more protests by the residents of New Brighton against the establishment of a 'house for dead people'.23 This reveals a tension between the museum's representation of the struggle against apartheid in the past and the performance of protest on its doorstep by people for whom this 'struggle' is very much present. This outside performance of what is inside the museum disrupts the idea that the representation of traumatic memory might lead to some form of catharsis.

This is a very recent encounter between the residents and the museum, but the dispute between the Port Elizabeth Municipality and the Red Location residents, regarding the Cultural Precinct development project, was present even at its conception through numerous protests intended to interrupt the construction of the museum. In 2003 a number of 'community' members were arrested during protests at the building site of the museum, when the residents gathered to articulate their basic need for new housing - not a museum. One of the councillors at the time described these protesters as 'a small group of unruly and ill-disciplined people'.24 Having started to take apart the museum building, the people of New Brighton have, in a sense, begun to take the idea of this museum to its logical conclusion - decomposition. It was reported that the perimeter fence and palisades of the museum has holes in it, which allow access to the grounds and the roof of the museum building. Some ventilation slats on the outside of the building are broken, giving access to the air-conditioning unit from which copper piping has also been taken.25

Once you reach the museum building, you are met by a structure which resembles a marquee, constructed of timber, with prominent column-like structures adding to its magnificence and the amount of building materials invested to create a very specific effect. There is a mosaic on the floor (Figure 1) that features some of the symbols associated with being a black subject during the 'struggle' against apartheid. Prominent in the background is a clenched fist, a hand gesture used by anti-apartheid movements during the call-and-response rally cry of 'Amandla! Awethu!' Beneath this fist is an armed policeman with his dog, another figure of oppression, walking among unarmed protestors with their clenched fists in the air. The grey appearance of the background of the mosaic anticipates and prefigures the tone of the black-and-white documentary images and artefacts on display inside the museum, but also doubles the very protests led and held by the New Brighton residents.

 

 

The colourful footprints, set against the black-and-white background, invokes the toyi-toyi, a 'movement' of the revolution, whereby protesters would jump and stomp their feet in a rhythmic movement, revolting against racial oppression. However, an alternative reading of this first image at the Red Location Museum becomes imperative, with the increasing revolt against the museum itself by the community. The protests and toyi-toying against the establishment of the Red Location Museum are a performance of the struggle imaged inside the museum mediating the ongoing struggles of the everyday lives of the people who live there. This major architectural project appears here as a symbol of oppression, which 'speaks' through the museumisation of the struggle in New Brighton. It asks that the Red Location Museum face and reflect on its own corrosive potentiality.

 

Framing Death

Upon entering the museum building, one is overwhelmed by its high ceiling, an effect created by the rising memorial columns, which tower over the visitor. These columns are dedicated to local heroic figures, like Raymond Mhlaba,26 Molly Blackburn,27 Ernest Malgas,28 Florence Matomela,29 Vuyisile Mini,30 and others. Black-and-white portraits are boldly titled with the names of the activists and below these are short, typed and dated outlines of each figure's political activities at particular moments of the struggle against apartheid.

The concrete slabs on which these banners hang are a consistent feature of the interior of the museum. According to Christopher du Preez, Acting Assistant Director and Curator at the Red Location Museum, these political figures were chosen by the community and a process of alternation was envisaged to include others who are regarded as struggle heroes. This was perhaps a way in which the museum wanted to seek the 'engagement' of the community, a way in which the living could act upon the dead and 'decide' on who haunts them, although the use of cement here gives the impression that something has been set in stone, so to speak. These pillars impose themselves visually, and resemble gravestones in 'a house for dead people', a cemetery, where the prominent leaders are the first to be 'seen'. What these 'gravestones' also allude to is that, in a sense,