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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 787-791

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art*works, n., pl.: brief reports on innovative critical cultural work within and outside established institutions <new kinds of museums; alternative or oral history projects; the expansion of musical performance and recording into forgotten musical histories or the dissemination of a broader range of musics; alternative publishing ventures or exhibition practices in film, theater, and dance; innovative cultural work with children; public art and art in public such as murals and graffiti; innovative uses of television, radio, or other mass media; and reports on past cultural work--the modernist, socialist, and avant-garde counterinstitutions of the early twentieth century>

Robben Island Museum

Loren Kruger

Robben (or "Seal") Island, eleven kilometers from Cape Town's refurbished Victoria and Albert Waterfront, in perennially cold and often turbulent Table Bay, is internationally known as the island fortress that held Nelson Mandela during twenty out of the twenty-seven years he spent as a political prisoner of the apartheid state. In 1996 the island was converted into a national monument that highlights the imprisonment of leading members of the African National Congress (ANC), including Nelson Mandela and others who received life sentences for "sabotage" in the early 1960s. In the main museum building, which was the [End Page 787] maximum-security prison built of island granite by the prisoners themselves, images and narratives of Mandela and other senior ANC members guide the visitor. The concession shop on the mainland wharf, managed by the warder Mandela called Warrant Officer Brand (one of three former warders invited to Mandela's inauguration), also sells ANC and Mandela memorabilia (T-shirts and hats as well as postcards and posters of party slogans) and numerous published accounts by and about the best-known prisoners as well as more wide-ranging documentation of the island's colonial and postcolonial history. Drawn from the Mayibuye Centre and ANC archive at the University of the Western Cape, these images and period posters hail the leaders and protest against the Treason Trials of the 1950s and the Rivonia Trial of 1962--trials that culminated in life sentences for Mandela and his comrades Govan Mbeki (father of the current president, Thabo Mbeki), Ahmed Kathrada, and others. These images and posters are strategically placed at the entrance to Section B (which contained the single cells reserved for ANC leaders), in the "smuggled camera" photographic exhibit in Section D, and in the yard once used for crushing stone as well as for more conventional exercise.

Yet, while images of the anti-apartheid struggle dominate the building, the Robben Island Committee has insisted that, in the words of ex-prisoner Kathrada, the Island should "not be . . . a monument to [former prisoners'] . . . hardship and suffering, but a monument to the triumph of . . . freedom and human dignity over repression and humiliation." 1 To this end, the island was declared a national monument under the Department of Art, Culture, Science, and Technology. The national monument consists of much more than the prison and associated sites. It includes the house in which Robert Sobukwe, leader of the breakaway Pan African Congress (PAC), lived in isolation from all other prisoners; the limestone quarry whose blinding white walls and dust permanently affected the prisoners' eyes; the island itself, including its remnants of indigenous flora and its growing bird and seal populations; the "village," which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries accommodated up to 2,000 government employees and others associated with the lighthouse, the mental hospital, and the leper colony, as well as political and common-law prisoners. The village and surrounds include lookouts used by the navy before and during the second world war (1936-46)--before the village accommodated a smaller population of warders and their families associated with the maximum-security prison (1961-95)--as well as two [End Page 788] churches, including the lepers' church of Christ the Good Shepherd that was designed by the British colonial architect Sir Herbert Baker and recently reconsecrated after seventy years of abandonment. Just outside the prison is a kramat, an Islamic shrine that marks the spot where Muslims who had been banished...


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pp. 787-791
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Archived 2004
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