Imvaba in the ‘hub of the struggle buzz’, an interview with Annette du Plessis

Mario Pissarra, 23 June 2017

ASAI: What were the factors that contributed to the establishment of Imvaba? How was Imvaba established?

ADP: Following in the footsteps of the 1970’s struggle, and more specifically during the mid-1980’s, as well as after the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a large number of activists from Port Elizabeth and surrounds, increasingly arose from the masses. In addition, the local establishments of workers unions were particularly taking off more.

The need for arts and cultural support in taking the anti-apartheid revolution forward was urgent. The local liberation movement needed new logos, banners, art backdrops, leaflets and pamphlets, t-shirts designs, resistance poetry and literature, as well as support from all other art disciplines – and Imvaba became a vibrant vanguard tool in the forefront of the Struggle.

One of the founder members of Imvaba, Lou Almon, was close to the workers struggle particularly – her husband was a leader in one of the Union’s – and she designed Cosatu’s logo which was adopted and is still in use today.

Lou and other struggle activists such as Michael Barry, Winston Ntshona, Mpumelelo Melane, Gavin and Sue Mabie, and Naomi Mackay, established Imvaba in the 1980s, under the patronship of George Pemba.

Titus Pemba, a grandson of George Pemba, joined as well and served as Imvaba’s coordinator. Some other artists who became involved in the early years included Sponono Nkopane, Sipho Kulati, Mxolisi Ganto , Debbie Mattheus and Douglas Sapeta

I joined Imvaba in March 1989. After the unbanning of the anti-apartheid organisations, Lizo Pemba (another Pemba grandchild) returned from exile and joined us from 1991

ASAI: What was your role in the organization?

ADP: Just some background as it portrays how my life was touched/influenced as an Afrikaner and artist (who almost knew nothing of the people’s struggle), and how this entry paved my way into Imvaba as a cultural activist.

During February 1989, I had my first opportunity to come and experience township life for a weekend through the NIR Koinonia exchange programme under the national guidance of ds Nico Smith, (who had lived in Kayamandi with a Xhosa family for a while), as well as various local religious leaders such as ds Tobie de Wet, and ds Andrew Jantjies.

During the state of emergency, I witnessed for the first time how the apartheid system suppressed black people. I was grieved to hear about the people’s terrible experiences under apartheid, I was shocked to see soldiers patrolling many places with casspirs and hippos and the place was virtually cordoned off with barbed wire. Most of all, I was angry at myself for being ignorant, apathetic and living a life of privilege – whilst my fellow South Africans were treated as inferior people in an extremely racist manner.

All visitors went on a township tour and by the time we reached the oldest settlement, Red Location, I was challenged by some with regard to what my contribution would be against apartheid or whether I was just there on tour watching them as if they were “living in a zoo”. By this time I was deeply disturbed and felt sick to the core of my stomach. My emotions ran high and spontaneously I responded that I would defy the Apartheid Regime by moving into the township without a permit.

When our tour returned to the rendezvous, at the Dutch Reformed Church in Pendla street, the news about my decision had already spread like a wildfire. A lady with whom I had coincidently worked together with previously, Dolly Buti approached me, and she invited me to come and stay in her house. My move materialized two weeks later in March 1989.

I came to reside in the New Brighton township (Dora Street – nicknamed the “Cuban Crossing” then) and from the first day, I met scores and scores of people, who took me under their wings. I hardly knew anything about the people’s struggle (although I had joined Idasa in a part-time capacity as a women’s organizer since January 1989).

Within the first week, I was invited by artists from Imvaba to join the organization as a visual artist. Its venue was in close proximity to where I lived, in the next street, through a “rhange” (passage) in Jabavu Street, at Adcock Homes.

I loved the people and the tiny little corner office venue from the first go. And there was a piano and some artists taught me how to play a simple melody “You’ve got a Friend”.

I discovered that Imvaba was flooded with so much work to do, as events with creative needs were in abundance. For example, we received requests for banners and art backdrops for political/union events, activities and campaigns.

I found myself living in the ‘hub of the struggle buzz’ and the house where I lived was occupied by well-known activists, namely Hamlet Mkwane, a well known South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco) activist, as well as Dolly. It was only now that I discovered to my astonishment that Dolly had been active for a long time (I wasn’t aware of this when I had worked with her in a boutique in 1988). Top political leaders and activists frequented the house and as soon as it became known fact that I was an artist and a member of Imvaba, I directly began receiving plenty of requests for art items needed. (During those days as Imvaba, we would in general not charge for making artworks, we only requested support for materials needed).

I was moreover invited to join an arts and crafts project under Idamasa (Inter-denominational African Ministers Association) at St Stephen’s church in Gratten street – here we mostly produced struggle clothing and ANC/SACP reversible hand flags (the colours we used as well as the flags created were banned by the system – obviously our products were very popular and on demand).

Through Imvaba I tackled a lot of individual requests but also worked collectively on some struggle art backdrops, with artists such as Lou, Michael, Mpume, Debbie, Naomi, Dollar and Mxolisi. I assisted with the painting of a number of murals, but unfortunately I can’t remember all the themes. The June 16th banner of 1989 comes to mind (when we had invited Mzwakhe Mbuli) as well as the welcoming banner for Tata Mandela when he addressed a rally in Motherwell in 1990 after his release.

Most of the works I did as an Imvaba artist, was through individual and direct requests from organizations.

The following works I created on my own, on behalf of Imvaba:

Port Elizabeth Action Committee (PEAC), South Africa, 1989, “Give Conscripts a choice”, creative banner – embroidered and collaged – against forced apartheid conscription for all white male South African Citizens;

Port Elizabeth Woman’s Organisation (PEWO), 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO), 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

Association for Democratic Journalists (ADJ), 1989, under the patronship of Govan Mbeki, designed logo;

National Institute for Reconciliation (NIR)- Koinonia, 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

Women’s Decade, 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO) 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;.

Uitenhage Civic Organisation, 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid and creating posters for “Stop the Hangings” campaign;

Congress of South African Students (COSAS), 1989, creative textile banner against apartheid;

National Emergency Services Group (NESG) under NAMDA (National Medical and Dental Association), 1989, creative and welcoming textile banner for returning Rivonia trialists;

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), 1989, creative textile banners for five unions against apartheid;

African National Congress (ANC), 1990 – 1991, creative textile banners for township branches in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage (after unbannings), beginning with the first nationally launched ANC Branch: New Brighton Branch;

Institute for Democratic Alternatives for South Africa (IDASA), 1990, creative textile banner for ‘One City, One Municipality';

National Emergency Services Group (NESG) under National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA), 1990/1991, logo design for welcoming t-shirt design for the returning exiles;

South African Communist Party (SACP), 1990, creative textile banner, welcoming rally for Nelson Mandela; and

ANC Women’s League (Port Elizabeth), 1991, creative textile banner.

The following works I created with other Imvaba artists:

June 16th 1989 backdrop banner, for Mzwakhe Mbuli event at Centenary Hall in New Brighton:

Mass Democratic Movement , 1990, creative mural backdrop for first welcoming rally in Motherwell (Port Elizabeth) for Nelson Mandela; and

“AIDS The New Struggle”, 1995, a huge mural on the side of Brister House at the central taxi rank in Port Elizabeth. Michael Barry, Mpumelelo Melane, Dolla Sapeta, Mxolisi Ganto and myself were invited by Nicky Blumenfeld from APT Artworks to participate – and for the exercise, we called ourselves the “Basebenzi Mural group”. The mural was part of the “Seven Cities” project sponsored by the National Department of Health. At the end, our mural was nominated as the top mural painted in the series and a week long artist’s residency was won in France. We nominated Mpume to attend on our behalf.

ASAI: Describe some of your most vivid memories of Imvaba?

ADP: It was such an educational experience to be involved through Imvaba. I learned about the struggle in a much deeper sense and also became trained as a marshal.

In those days many activists were simultaneously involved in different activities. I was encouraged to join as a marshal for the purposes of fitness, to be active close to the masses, to deepen my vigilance around security matters, to assist me with political education and to draw me into very interesting debates. As a marshal, I participated in most struggle activities and furthermore gained so much from the input shared by leaders through these events. I also had a collection of banned reading materials. Overall it assisted me in doing struggle art from a more educated political platform. I remember this incident: One night the System, under van Wyk, banged loudly on our bedroom window at about 2 am. I shared the bedroom with the children of Dolly and their friends (at times) and Dolly used the other bedroom, which she sometimes shared with “H” (the nickname of Hamlet Mkwane) or her mother (when she visited from Peddie). In a panic, I jumped up, grabbed the forbidden reading materials under my mattress, ran into Dolly’s room and hid it under her carpet. But as I did so, a bucket of water and urine tumbled over and soaked the carpet! I hurried back into the lounge; by this time the dreaded Apartheid Security members had entered. Van Wyk asked me where “H” was – I responded that I didn’t know, and when they asked me who was lying in that bed, I answered it was the Makhulu. They entered the room with a torch (the light switch was on the opposite – furthest wall) and they asked why the carpet was so wet. Dolly shouted that it was because they woke us up in the awkward hours of the night and that she had jumped up in shock, bumped against the bucket, which then fell over. Even though they eventually discovered that it was “H” in the bed they didn’t arrest him as we feared. They just visited to harass us. Fortunately, they never discovered the banned literature underneath the carpet. That was a close call to being “taken in” on the spot!

I specifically loved working together with the other Imvaba artists on mural backdrops at Lou Almon’s home basement in Central. It was amazing exercise to integrate our different styles and I gained tremendous skills and insight from the other artists.

They inspired me as well with their selflessness and willingness to work and produce works around the clock. I loved Lou’s style of painting: she had produced a series on workers building the main Telkom building, at that stage, which was on the rise just below her house. Her style was bold, colourful and almost musical – these works very much influenced us in the murals we worked on in her basement. Michael Barry had an incredible style, working boldly with strong figurative imagery. He also taught us additional skills such as creating monoprints (at St Thomas School in Galvandale where he was an art teacher).

The backdrop we did for the welcoming rally of Nelson Mandela on 29 July 1990 (which was attended by over 500 000 people!) was also an outstanding experience. And I remember how the steel constructed stage almost collapsed under the weight of the dignitaries and the choir! Fortunately, the choir leaving the stage rescued the situation.

I also remember how helicopters were swooping down in New Brighton to confiscate some of the large embroidered textile banners whilst our people were marching with these. Sadly all of these were never recovered. One that comes to mind is the welcoming banner embroidered with the faces of the released Rivonia Trialists in 1989.

We used the latter banner as well as the five Cosatu embroidered textile banners during the huge (apparently more than 40 000 people participated) during the non-racial “March for Hope” on 26 November 1989. The march stretched from New Brighton Centenary Hall, bypassing the Greenacres Shopping Mall and finally ended at the back of the North End Court, where we were addressed by some of the released Rivonia Trialists.

I treasure memories of Imvaba to this day. I have never experienced belonging to such an incredible movement again!

Through my experience in Imvaba, I was motivated to eventually establish the Siyaya Centre for Young Arts in December 2001, in New Brighton (after I had won an artist residency scholarship to Gotebörg Sweden the previous month). On invitation of SIDA (Swedish Development Agency) the following year, I ran the twinning children’s art project (Port Elizabeth Transitional Council partnership with Göteborg City) through 22 libraries in PE and surrounds. Our project was tremendously blessed and I was able to employ nine professional artists in the project ( Ferhana Abu-Baker, Nomabaso Bedeshe, Pumla Cagwe, Rob Erasmus, Mxolisi Ganto, Amanda Heshu, Norman Kaplan, Mpatisi Mdyeswa,Mpumelelo Melane, Sibongiseni Timla and Shirley Yates) between 2002 to 2005. Malin Sellman, Henriette Ousbäck and Britten Löfqvist from the Swedish Artists Against Apartheid organization also joined our group in Port Elizabeth in running several workshops with librarians, art facilitators and teachers.

The latter project would never have happened if I did not have the earlier incredible Imvaba arts experience.

ASAI: What were the main achievements of Imvaba?

ADP: Imvaba played a significant and outstanding role in the anti-apartheid struggle in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage. Artists from various art disciplines contributed their skills and talents to produce great contributions and products in support of the anti-apartheid struggle.

ASAI: What factors led to the demise of Imvaba?

ADP: An interesting phenomenon after our first democratic elections in April 1994 was that many of the people’s structures became inactive, which was evident in the collapse of the street and area committees and Sanco. Imvaba followed the same kind of trend.

As Imvaba we had a fantastic art exhibition in 1994, during the Grahamstown Festival, but in a way, our organization began rounding off more and more. One of our last activities was the HIV mural we did in 1995, in PE Central.

The ultimate need which was there for Imvaba during the struggle, faded away. It seemed as if many organizations which we used to serve, gradually forgot more and more about the importance of our role.

ASAI: What can we learn from Imvaba that would help us address contemporary challenges?

ADP: Imvaba was an organization where artists stood together, appreciated each other, and valued one another. There were no disputes or arrogant behaviors. Our unity was our strength.

I feel if structures similar to Imvaba were to be stimulated we can advance much further as a collective of artists in society: not only for ourselves, but as servants of the people,- towards development and transformation, through our skills and talents.

As Imvaba we also used to teach community members art. There is a great need for this kind of interaction in contemporary society. I believe that artists should continue teaching art at schools, not ordinary teachers. Arts education has sadly rapidly declined in general at our schools.

In our City visual artists hardly get an opportunity to participate in Governmental events. And offices and boardrooms are by far empty of visual artworks.

We need more mentorship relationships. As far as National, Provincial and Local Government events are concerned, if visual artists could at least be drawn in to participate in making art backdrops and other relevant and related designs. Such works could form part of our City’s (and/or other) art collections. The public needs to be more closely engaged with art and find inspiration and/or meditation in these.

How about if artists are encouraged to be the artists they are? If they are further developed, regularly produce works and share their treasures with not only our nation but with the African diaspora and the world at large? (definitely not to sink down and eventually do almost no art at all, because they probably feel predominantly forced/obliged to seek other forms of employment).

Where is the creative brand of Nelson Mandela Bay for instance? Such a noble name we carry as a City, but what kind of creative memorial products and tokens do we have available to share with our locals, visitors and tourists?

And it’s not only in the visual arts terrain that there is much scope for economic growth and development. Each art discipline needs to be strengthened and developed further – this is for the benefit of society at large.

I voice myself here as a visual artist as that’s my field. I feel that all artists need to appear on governmental databases: reflecting their contact details highlighting their skills and works (with some examples). Every business, every industry, every institution should invest in art. Artworks, for instance, could be rented out with the option to purchase.

Our vandalised and vacant buildings in the Metro should be occupied and transformed into artist studios and residencies. And this is where learners can engage directly with artists and through their mentorship be facilitated and trained in art techniques and methodologies. Potentially, artists can contribute to the upliftment and transformation of society.

Artists are also visionaries and new developments and plans need to go hand in hand with our visionaries, to ensure that the future is always better and brighter for all.


This interview was conducted by email in June 2017.

1 Comment

  1. Debbie Pretorius | July 25, 2017 at 12:11 am
     

    Documenting the history of Imvaba from such a personal perspective, involvement and experience is fantastic. Very interesting. A wonderful and enlightening read. Thank you so much!

    Reply

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