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Immersed in a legend's life

Human rights museum's new exhibition lets visitors relive the struggles and triumphs of Nelson Mandela

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Volunteer model Andree Forest walks through the new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Volunteer model Andree Forest walks through the new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/6/2018 (197 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the spring of 1964, Nelson Mandela delivered a speech.

The anti-apartheid leader was standing on trial for sabotage and, in a courtroom in South Africa, he uttered the words that would be quoted for decades to come.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela was convicted and imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of which were served on Robben Island, a fortress off the coast of Cape Town where South Africa’s political prisoners were exiled. But his fight against apartheid — a system of white supremacy and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that lasted in South Africa from 1948 until the 1990s — was not over. Mandela continued to resist and mobilize from his 8-by-7 foot concrete cell, and, he remained at the centre of an international human-rights movement despite only having contact with a handful of people.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/6/2018 (197 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the spring of 1964, Nelson Mandela delivered a speech.

The anti-apartheid leader was standing on trial for sabotage and, in a courtroom in South Africa, he uttered the words that would be quoted for decades to come.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mandela was convicted and imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of which were served on Robben Island, a fortress off the coast of Cape Town where South Africa’s political prisoners were exiled. But his fight against apartheid — a system of white supremacy and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that lasted in South Africa from 1948 until the 1990s — was not over. Mandela continued to resist and mobilize from his 8-by-7 foot concrete cell, and, he remained at the centre of an international human-rights movement despite only having contact with a handful of people.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

After his release in February 1990, Mandela would go on become the first democratically elected president and black head of state in South Africa and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He remains a revered figure around the world and especially in South Africa, where he’s referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, as a sign of respect and affection. He died in 2013, at the age of 95.

Mandela’s story is a stirring, inspirational tale of resistance, resilience and struggle. As 2018 is the centennial of Mandela’s birth, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is presenting Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, an innovative, interactive exhibition that puts visitors right inside Mandela’s story. The exhibit officially opens on June 8. There is a free opening event on June 7, and tonight, the show will be fêted with a gala at which former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who was a key anti-apartheid ally of Mandela’s in the 1980s, will speak.

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is about Mandela, it’s not only about Mandela. Many people around the world, including here in Canada, joined his struggle. Canada’s role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa was one of the stories Isabelle Masson, the exhibition’s curator, was interested in exploring within the context of this show.

"The idea was to talk to Canadians that had been involved in the struggle, that joined the struggle and called for the Canadians to impose formal sanctions on South Africa to bring about change," she says. "What’s the relation of this story to what’s happening here in Canada, and how Canadians were involved?"

As part of her research, she interviewed a wide cross-section of Canadians, from student activists to former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis. There were two questions she asked of everyone: When did you become aware? and When did you become involved?

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

"I wanted to speak to Canadians from different backgrounds and different locations who felt that this story was their story," she says. "Those conversations were fascinating, and it was an interesting story about solidarity, social movement, and Canadians from different backgrounds calling for sanctions, calling for change and, and some point, finding that a distant struggle is something they care about."

Visitors will be able to hear the audio from six of those interviews in what is just one of the interactive installations to be found in Mandela: Struggle for Freedom.

Masson remembers when she was personally galvanized by Mandela’s story. "I was present for the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, and that experience had a profound impact on what I cared about in life," she says. "It made me passionate about politics for my life since."

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom was developed in partnership with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Masson also worked closely with a range of other South African institutions, including the District 6 Museum in Cape Town, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, as well as the Mayibuye Archives at the Robben Island Museum. The exhibition includes more than 40 artifacts.

Travelling to South Africa and seeing how South Africans tell Mandela’s story was crucial in building a richer, more representative exhibition, Masson says.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Curator Isabelle Masson poses in the new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Curator Isabelle Masson poses in the new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

"In all instances, I think there was a trust relationship to be built over time," she says. "There’s always a question of how, in our case, people from Canada in our own context, how they will take stories and what they will do with them, how they will represent them — that concern is always present. You have to come to this as the building of a relationship. That is a very interesting part of curation that presents its challenges, but it’s the foundation of building something that’s true and connected to the experience of South African people."

Another challenge? Drilling down a massive, complex story into a tidy, narrative arc. Here, Mandela’s story is divided into five chapters: Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization, and Freedom. Visitors will begin their journey in Apartheid and end in Freedom.

This is not an artifacts-behind-glass kind of show. "I’ve said it before and I’ve heard it before, but an exhibit is not a book on the wall," Masson says. "You want to be creating moments and experiences."

Rob Vincent led the exhibition design for Mandela: Struggle for Freedom. Everything from audio and video to colour is used to tell the story.

"You’re really able to create a really emotional experience with design, and that’s something we really wanted to do within each of the five chapters," Vincent says.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

A striking example is the first section, Apartheid. "It’s very black and white, and really in your face," Vincent says. Visitors are met by a hulking wall, plastered with dozens of restrictive and discriminatory apartheid-era laws. The wall is intentionally designed to feel oppressive; it leans toward visitors. "You have a better understanding, emotionally, what apartheid means," Vincent says.

The word apartheid is Afrikaans, and is commonly translated as "separateness." ‘Heid’ comes from Dutch, meaning ‘hood.’ The literal translation, then, is "apart-hood." Vincent and the designers wanted to represent that idea visually. "We were taking some of the images Isabelle found and separating the individuals within the image to show that apartness," Vincent says.

There are many other moments of clever, interactive design — such as a set that looks like an average South African living room but, on closer investigation, is the site of resistance. "We had lots of fun," Masson says.

In addition to moments of discovery, there are also moments meant to inspire discussion, particularly around the move to armed resistance. "We don’t shy away from what is entailed in the conversation about the struggle, so the question of being a freedom fighter versus being a terrorist," Masson says. "The turn to armed struggle is something people will debate and have conversations about. So we present how Mandela sees his own struggle, believing in the right for people to defend themselves against oppression and that, in fact, for them they see themselves as freedom fighters."

Further on, a massive replica of a Casspir armoured vehicle stands in direct opposition to South African children, who are armed only with trash-can lids.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

"You can really grasp the struggle," Masson says. "Once you have the music and the lighting, what will take over is the energy of resistance. You’ll hear anti-apartheid music playing in the space, you’ll have the sound of people toyi-toying (toyi-toyi is a form of protest song and dance). It’s that energy we want to convey." Visitors can also design their own protest posters using an interactive table that behaves like an tablet. The posters are then shown on screens alongside original posters from the Mayibuye Archives. The installation illustrates how critical grassroots activism was to the global anti-apartheid movement.

The exhibition’s pièce de résistance, however, is the recreation of Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell. Being inside the close physical space is a visceral experience, but it’s also a hopeful one, thanks to its audio-visual storytelling element. "It shows how much he was still able to do while within this 6-10 by 7-10 space," Vincent says.

The final chapter, Freedom, includes compelling artifacts, including the page Mandela signed in the Canadian government’s Golden Book just a few months after his release, thanking Canadians for their support.

The Freedom section presented its own curatorial challenges.

"There were a few things we needed to do in Freedom," Masson says. "People might remember where they were when Mandela walked out of jail, but from the moment of his release in 1990 to the democratic elections, there’s quite a bit of a story to be told. The country almost falls into the most bloody civil war. It’s really the story about this negotiated revolution, and it’s a difficult story. Violence is all around you and thousands of people are being killed.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

"The goal was not to tell a romantic story of this happy ending," she adds. "There was a lot to do here. What we decided we needed to cover was to focus on Mandela’s role in two things: the democratic transformation of South Africa and reconciliation."

South Africa launched a post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which inspired Canada’s own TRC that focused on abuse at Indian residential schools and documented Aboriginal survivors’ experiences. This section offers opportunities to reflect on Canada’s own colonial past and present.

"In the process of developing the story of the exhibit, we had to consider this and how we would approach this," Masson says. "What became apparent is that we couldn’t handle telling two similar but different historical stories of colonialism at the same time, within one show. What we did with Mandela was made reference to Canada in text, through interviews, wherever there was a connection. Not to say it was the same story of colonial oppression and racial oppression today, but there are parallel moments and issues that you can look at and think, and provide an opportunity for reflection on your own context."

The things Mandela spent his life fighting for — equality, freedom and justice for all — are still being fought for around the world. Perhaps Mandela: Struggle for Freedom will get people thinking about those struggles, close and distant, and ask themselves Masson’s questions: When did you become aware? And when did you become involved?

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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History

Updated on Monday, June 4, 2018 at 11:59 AM CDT: Adds headline short

June 7, 2018 at 3:45 PM: adds video

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