The Silent Revolutionary: an interview with Judy Ann Seidman

POSTED ON: December 17, 2019 IN Conversations, Judy Seidman, On Artists, Sipho Mdanda, Word View

by Sipho Mdanda

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Judy Ann Seidman is a visual artist and cultural activist with a long history of producing politically and socially engaged work. Born in the USA in 1951, she moved with her parents to newly independent Ghana and subsequently lived most of her life in the frontline states, before moving to South Africa in 1990.

Sipho Mdanda: What are your earliest memories of encounters with art and art-making and how old were you when you decided to be an artist, if that is your preferred title?

Judy Ann Seidman: My grandmother was an artist, a life-long political activist, feminist and pacifist.  So I was brought up with art-making, particularly art-making as an act of political activism. When I was five or six, I announced that I wanted to be a painter or a pirate (pirate was not a practical career choice, of course).

SM: What artists did you look to for inspiration?

JAS: Early influences were my grandmother’s work, then the drawings of German artist Kathe Kollwitz when I was around 8 or 9. I was overwhelmed by the work of Mexican muralists (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros) which we saw on a trip to Mexico when I was 10. At that time, Frida Khalo was not known as one of the group — a major act of gender discrimination in art history. I only became aware of her work when she was “discovered” in the late 1960s. 

The work of the Mexican Muralists and Kathe Kollwitz made me want to become a painter, and a painter of political, revolutionary art.  I think, looking back, that I also became aware quite early — through considering these works — that there should be no one blanket concept like the Western art-world’s distorted version of “socialist realism,” that pre-determines every line you draw, or every image or symbol you imagine.  These artists helped me ask, what makes realism, surrealism, expressionism speak? Are there even hard walls between these different approaches?  Surely working with each of these theoretical approaches can lead to new insights.

When we moved to Ghana (I was 11), I became fascinated by West African masks and sculpture. My father had done woodwork (mostly crafting furniture) as a hobby all of his life. He collected wooden sculpture and masks and took me to visit Nigerian woodworker workshops in Enugu (before the Biafran war), and admired their approaches to making shape and form and meaning out of wood.

SM: During those early years, did you have any formal art instruction?

JAS: I took art classes as a child, and spent a lot of time drawing everything around me (trees, boats, people, hands, faces…). I had a Japanese art teacher when I was 8 who taught the basics of Japanese brush painting (which showed me that Euro-centric art techniques and theories were not the only way to make art, or the only aesthetics).

My first really significant art teacher was Kofi Antubam who taught art at my secondary school in Achimota, Ghana. Antubam was probably Ghana’s best known visual artist, and a leading intellectual around repositioning African culture in the anti-colonial/post-colonial/ Pan-Africanist structures. [1] Also at that time, Ghana schools had just introduced the West African O level certification, replacing the British exams; so we studied books for matric in English and literature including Chinua Achebe Things fall Apart, Ayi Kwei Armah The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, and Peter Abrahams Tell Freedom (as well as Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy); and in history we studied the kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai (the text books covering these were provided to the class in draft form).

After the coup against Nkrumah, my parents moved to the USA, and taught at the University of Wisconsin.  I went to university in Madison, getting first a BA in sociology (my parents felt that “being an artist” was not a good career) and then (after long fights with my parents) switching to study art, and getting an MFA (specialising in painting). I finished my MFA in 1972, and went to visit my parents who were then teaching in Lusaka, Zambia.  And stayed.

But the most important learning experience I had was after I left school, learning from colleagues and comrades who saw their artwork as integral to the liberation in Southern Africa. This awareness became the key direction of my artwork — far more important than the technical skills I studied at University.  Specifically, I learned from sculptor and poet Pitika Ntuli in Swaziland; and from Thami Mnyele in Medu; more broadly, within the Medu Art Ensemble collective, which brought together many leading cultural workers in many art forms.

SM: How were you conscientised to the struggle for justice, taking into account your privileged upbringing?

JAS: My mother took us to my first picket line when I was six (in 1957), in support of the US Civil Rights movement; as part of a national action to boycott shops that discriminated in the US South. (This was in New England, so it was not a dangerous demonstration… but even at aged six I did know that people were being beaten and killed for doing this in Alabama.)

We were taught that the problems facing the world would be addressed by mobilising the poor and oppressed; to believe in working class mobilisation and trade unions; in the civil rights movement; in passive resistance (Martin Luther King and Gandhi); in the Russian Revolution; in the anti-fascist alliance that fought Hitler; in the Cuban Revolution. We moved to Ghana (led at the time by Dr Kwame Nkrumah) in large part because my parents felt they could not live and act on their beliefs, or bring up children in the USA at the end of the McCarthy period, at the time of the Bay of Pigs and the Cold War. 

I went to a leading Ghanaian boarding school, Achimota. This was a hard, challenging time for me. All the students other than me, my brother and sister were born and brought up in Ghana, all black/African (West Africa did not have a white settler population because of malaria).  In the dormitories, my school mates spoke the six Ghanaian languages — although English was the medium of instruction in school. I still had some privileges (none of the teachers ever beat me physically, which was a common punishment — and surely that was because of race); but maybe I learned just a little bit about what it meant to not be at the top of the system. 

 Going to Achimota was difficult, but it affirmed my early beliefs about the need to fight inequality and injustice. In Achimota (in the early 1960s) I became absorbed with what was happening in apartheid South Africa. This was started by reading Peter Abrahams Tell Freedom as a set book for matric. We also got the West African version of Drum magazine at the school library, carrying the on-going story of the Rivonia trial, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle. So many of my personal difficulties seemed to be made worse by race and culture divisions, even in a country which in principle rejected these. Where race/culture had become the main enforcer of inequality was eye-opening. And that people organised to fight against it was a beacon of hope even for my very small-scale problems. These principles remain the foundations of my beliefs today. Of course they have shifted as history changed and my own experiences added new perspectives — but they still seem solid foundations for my life.

SM: “The political is personal, the personal is political.’ The individual comes from and defines the collective; the collective, in turn, drives, frames and shapes the individual, who in turn enters the new or on-going or alternative collective.” This statement that you made in 2010 is heavily-loaded. Could you unpack it for me? What is meant here?

JAS: First, these comments begin with the feminist statement “the personal is political” — a principle developed because women were so often told that family, sex, relationships, even emotions were private and personal, and should not be seen in political or social contexts, or even discussed as social constructs. So if you were raped, or beaten by your husband, it must be kept a private act.  Yet we know that when women compare notes, so many of us are raped or subject to gender violence. We need to address this politically, as a social structure called patriarchy. 

Against my will is a crime, 2008. Pastel. Courtesy: Judy Seidman

But that is just the beginning of unpacking that concept. How we behave and know and experience as individuals is shaped by the political/social situation we live in. The political becomes personal every step of the way, at every point in our lives. 

Following on that, we also need to think about “political” not as a narrow construct of how our society is governed, or even about which group oppresses and exploits another group, or who resists. Rather we need to look at the broad frameworks that structure how we interact as people — as individuals, as groups, as the community and as society as a whole. These collective interactions shape each of us into the individuals we are; and we in turn feed into the networks around us, and (re)shape the collective.

From the very broad to the specific: too much of what we are told as artists today is that we should look only at our individual insights and inspiration; ignoring that these are themselves part of the broader human experience.  As an art-maker you need to be ever aware of the people around you — how these people impact on your life, and how what you make and say impacts upon them.

As for the relevance of this approach in 2010, or in 2019 for that matter, several things come to mind.

One is a song from my childhood, which goes:

Freedom does not come like a bird on the wing,
Doesn’t come down like the summer rain;  
Freedom, Freedom is a hard-won thing;
You have to work for it, fight for it, day and night for it
And every generation has to win it again.

Yes, we fought for many things, and won many battles.  We (mostly) even won the immediate war to end apartheid. We won a society that at least in principle approaches human beings as equals, and with justice.  We should be proud of that, for sure. It does not mean we can say there is nothing more to do. Principles still need to be turned into practice. And as life changes and develops, we face new and unexpected problems: pollution and climate change are today existential threats to us all, but especially to the poor and disempowered who do not have the means to survive the damage around them.

SM: What does art mean to you and your world view, having lived through so much?

JAS: In my Drawn Lines exhibition I try to answer this with a quote from black American cultural worker and academic, Robin Kelley, who wrote:

Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.

Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge.

The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling. [3]   

That says it all far better than I can.

SM: Having given almost all your adult life to the struggle for justice in many African countries, are you satisfied with your personal sacrifice for your cause?

JAS: Hmm. I am not sure how to respond to that, the question itself seems a problem.  I am not sure that I sacrificed all that much. Yes, I made choices which meant I did not have a career path as upper-middle class professional in USA, but I never wanted those so-called benefits: wealth and position sitting on top of racism, sexism, and exploitation of the rest of the world. I am happy and proud about making those basic choices, and do not regret any so-called “lost opportunities” at all.

About “sacrifices,” yes, there were personal pains, and losses. My personal losses were not nearly as severe as those many of my comrades suffered (for one thing, I survive, and my family survived). I am sure this is partially luck, partially good decisions (by comrades and commanders), and also the effect of privilege (I was not targeted in the Gaborone raid almost certainly because killing a white woman with an American passport would not have been “good optics”). For losses I did have: personal pain and loss can never be a cause for satisfaction — you accept it, live with it as best you can, because it is part of the fight you are in. You try to survive, and say you will pick up the spear. 

Overall, I would say that I am content with most of what I have done, individually and as part of the collective. Yes we lost some battles, and did not fight others that we should have fought; and made a few stupid mistakes (which no one should be satisfied with). Above all, I am proud of the vision of a better world, and of working towards it.

SM: Describe your work while living in Zambia and Swaziland. Did you see it as separate from your political activism?

JAS: There were periods where I had time, sometimes long periods, where I was making artwork that did not have an immediate use as a graphic or illustration or other function for a cause. I did not see this artmaking as being “away” from, or somehow separated from, those causes. Zambia and Swaziland were frontline states in the anti-apartheid struggle; in both, many and most of my personal friends and colleagues were South African liberation fighters. The socio-economic-political dynamics of those countries in the 70s were intricately linked to South Africa’s apartheid and colonial oppression, as well as with anti-colonial/liberation movements in neighbouring Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). All of this influenced my drawing. Yes, it was of course possible to try to close your eyes to the liberation movement dynamics, but that was very much not my understanding of what my art was.

What I did in my art-making (when not for specific movement purposes) was to spend a lot of time walking around town, drawing people on the streets — people working, walking, sitting on trucks, talking, drinking or playing; trying to make pictures that showed the strength, care, engagement, joy, and anger; that which makes us human. Then I would take the notebooks full of sketches home and try to compose a picture that spoke about what I had drawn, trying to make sense of what I had seen.

I was very aware of the differences of my own experiences from people around me — first in the US, then in West Africa, then in yet more and different countries. Drawing what I saw, on a daily basis, became a space to try to understand what we as human beings share or do not share; and then, find ways put these ideas into completed drawings, for other people to see and think about. I believed, even then and still today, that the definition of good art is art that helps us understand each other, to share perceptions and realities.

Drawing people on the streets in Zambia, and then Swaziland, I tried to show how people engage with the world around them, how each individual forms part of that world that we share. Not drawings that isolate individuals from the realities of daily life, but rather showed how people got on with life, as individuals, as workers, interacting with others, in defined spaces, carrying out tasks and actions.

Young woman in Zambia, 1974. Oil on canvas. Courtesy: Judy Seidman

SM: You taught and worked with Pitika Ntuli, both in Swaziland and London, and you’ve mentioned that he influenced you, can you elaborate?

JAS: Pitika was a huge influence on my art-making. He had also studied art in Ghana (at Cape Coast College) when he first left South Africa in the early sixties. He had thought through many of the ideas that I had some contact with, and made me revisit my approach to art. In Wisconsin, as a university student, the fashionable aesthetic theories that students were expected to build upon were abstract expressionism, and photo-realism (just beginning when I was a student). I was aware then that these “art-world orthodoxies” did not work for me. But when I started talking about art with Pitika, I realised that I was not just being stubborn and irritable, and perhaps cut off from those around me.  

I was stunned by Pitika’s awareness and articulation of art and revolution, by his vision of dialectics weaving shape and sound and ideas and theory into motion. Pitika put words to this in the catalogue for the Louder than Words exhibition in 1980. “South Africa is a cauldron of frustration and hope.  The repression-resistance spiral is on a consistent, constant rise.  The task of an artist is to capture it, for it in turn to fuel the spiral of change.” [2] His sculptures caught and conveyed that same breath-taking awareness.

SM: How did the differences between your politics, with Ntuli being a PAC member, impact on your relationship?

JAS: My sense was that we were basically on the same side of making art, and in the struggle. Yes, our organisations had differences, most relevant being about the role of whites in the liberation movement. Pitika, and many other South African revolutionaries I have worked with — both ANC and PAC, pointed out that this political position was put into place as a response to whites who were born and raised in apartheid, to assume superiority and privilege. The struggle for liberation aimed to give voice and power to those who had been denied those all their lives. I needed to realise that yes I am white and in this skewed society that gives me privilege. Being born to privilege should make me shut up and listen to people who have far more experience and awareness of these issues. 

In Swaziland, we were both linked to underground structures aligned with different political parties. Pitika never discussed his underground connections or work with me; I never mentioned mine to him. None of my political contacts in the ANC raised any concerns about my artwork and teaching with a PAC member.

Pitika and I lived and worked in England where we overlapped for about 9 months. He was living in London; I was in Oxford with a toddler, and then pregnant with my second child. We both were openly linked to anti-apartheid activities. Several people had warned me that in the environment of anti-apartheid movements in Europe, activists were more likely to emphasise differing “party politics.” But in those months Pitika and I met only very occasionally to coordinate exhibitions and such. He once asked me to design an anti-apartheid poster, but then said it would be under the PAC’s name alone. I thought that might cause tensions with people I worked with, and told him I was not comfortable doing that. He did not insist. Other than that, it did not come up.

Solomon Mahlangu, 1981. Silkscreen poster. Courtesy: Judy Seidman

SM: What was central to the establishment of the Medu Art Ensemble in 1977?

JAS: The cultural workers who came to Gaborone in 1977 to form the pre-cursor to Medu came out of the art movement around Black Consciousness.  The ANC in the late 1960s was banned and fully underground; youth experimenting with the arts and cultural expression inevitably engaged with ideas about resistance and cultural assertion within oppressed communities that were publicly stated by Black Consciousness. By the time Medu was named, and formally instituted, in 1979, the divisions sharpened between those who politically supported Black Consciousness, and those aligned to the ANC. Cultural activists who joined Medu from other places where they had been in exile (such as Wally Serote) promoted direct links with the ANC.

Many comrades in Medu would say later that their cultural roots fed from different rivers – their home community (which politically most often saw themselves as ANC, even after the ANC went underground); their cultural ideas which had been informed by Black Consciousness (not necessarily the political structures of the Black Consciousness movement); and their experiences in exile as organised members of MK and the ANC, in the “liberation movement.”  

SM: Do you think Medu achieved its objectives over the 8-year period before its unfortunate demise by the racist regime’s mercenaries?

JAS: This depends upon what you define as Medu’s objectives — but yes, I would say it did achieve its key aims. These were: to find cultural voice for people who had been denied this by the repressive regime – check. Medu did that.  To encourage artists within the country to align their work to the liberation movement – check. Medu did that. To provide a relatively secure “base” on the front-line to facilitate people moving in and out of South Africa for revolutionary purposes (artistic and otherwise), as cover and as interface with the Botswana population – check. Medu did that. To make amazing creative art and develop a theory of culture that would give voice to the movement – check. Medu did that. 

There were many aims and visions that were not finished or complete when Medu was destroyed in 1985. We did not reach the point of entering Pretoria with the liberation army, with people throwing flowers: can we say we achieved all we hoped to? No, not that. But we did get very far down the line.

SM: To what extent has MEDU and collective practices shaped and influenced your art-making?

JAS: My time in Medu was the formative time for my artwork, no question. Thami summed up how the collective affected us all in his paper Observations in 1982:

It was in Medu Art Ensemble where the role of an artist concretized itself: the role of an artist is to learn; the role of an artist is to teach others; the role of an artist is to ceaselessly search for the ways and means of achieving freedom. Art cannot overthrow a government, but it can inspire change. In Medu Art ensemble we explore the possibilities of our artforms in the context of our time, place and events. Secondly, we would like always to be able to do things out of need so that we can be clear as to our account of them. Therefore it was in Medu that the artist does things consciously . . . the whole little ensemble is a workshop, a classroom, a jungle through which the people must carve out a home. Thirdly, as the artist is involved with methods and materials, he is involved with himself or herself.  We relearn to live again with one another. It is the culture we mean to help create. [4]

In Medu I found a working collective that provided both a home and a focal point to fashion new visions and new ways of saying; a place where we could build upon each other’s ideas and individualities to make something far beyond what any one of us might imagine. Medu was a place where we could explore how we could give new form and meaning to culture, how this crucial link between separate human beings can become a tool to make us a better humanity. We aim to create culture to connect human beings into a society that values us all. And a key recognition is that an art-making collective succeeds because it is part of a broader effort to change the awareness of people in our society. The art collective must come out of, form part of a broader social movement.

After Medu was destroyed by the Gaborone raid, part of my role as a cultural worker has been to look for ways to find collective ways of creating art; to give voice to movements for social justice.

The difficulty here is that the visual arts, unlike theatre or music, offers few or no processes that make people work together. The modern capitalist world categorises the visual artist as an individual  madly painting in an attic or a studio, spewing out beautiful images from the visions in his head (note, the male gender is part of the definition).

So part of saying my role is to work with collectives means also finding visual arts processes that make this possible. Which has meant that one of the main things I’ve been working on for the last few decades is running visual arts workshops that build collective work. We have explored workshops doing this with the Joburg based arts education project, Curriculum Development Project for fine arts (mostly with adult women who work on issues confronting women); with Khulumani Support Group (in places around the country); with the widows of the Marikana massacre; and with the feminist art-making group the One in Nine Campaign.

Of these groups, the One in Nine Campaign, has generated a working collective of feminist artists who are creating some very exciting artwork. And One in Nine is an activist group as well, so the artwork made with this collective has been integrated into on-going “political” struggles for women’s liberation.

SM: Since moving to South Africa in 1990, have you been able to revive your painting career away from making revolutionary art? Have you found exhibiting your work easier, at all or not? Are there many opportunities to exhibit?

JAS: I never wanted to have a “painting career away from making revolutionary art,” so no, that did not happen. A more difficult, perhaps more relevant question would be: have I been able to maintain my career as a revolutionary artist since moving to South Africa in 1990? To which I could reply, yes and no. Yes, there is endless space and on-going issues; there is the driving need to create in response to these. And no, there is still no place to position a career as a revolutionary artist in this country. It often seems like society has tried to draw a line after “we won our liberation;” everyone has been told to go back to being “normal” — meaning painting pretty pictures that make people say: “oh, I love the colours, what made you think of drawing like that?” which will sell for good prices in high-end galleries in Rosebank and Sandton; forget all about those debates about finding voice for the voiceless.

SM: To what extent has the emergence of ‘Khulumani Group’ and ‘One in Nine Workshops’ (as collectives) ensured the revolutionary activism in you continued? Or you think this is an unfair comparison to Medu Art Ensemble?

JAS: Undoubtedly for me, these groups have connected to the revolutionary activism I believe in, but they come at a different time from Medu — decades later. The revolution we fought for, politically and culturally, seems half retired. The youth (even the not-so-young) today still need to find their own battles, and fight them. They still have to create their artistic and cultural space.

As the song says, “and every generation has to win it again.”

SM: Is there a disjuncture (after freedom gained) for an artist to go their individual way, as opposed to the cause fought for?

JAS: I do not believe we have crossed any hard and fast finish line where we can say “struggle over, we have won our freedom.” So I would respond that this question is not relevant today; and I for one expect to be long dead before that happens.

Even at this mythical future point where we have won all of our dreams, I suspect we will need art to have more dreams — we will always need, to use Robin Kelley’s words, “works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” [5] And this will always be radical art.

Women we fought for the vote, 1994. Litho poster. Courtesy: Judy Seidman

SM: What do you say to the perception that ‘ART’ is an elitist form of expression? If it is, why do artists and politicians make use of it to fight injustices?

JAS: As revolutionary cultural workers, we do NOT say that ALL Art is an elitist expression.  Rather, we argue that the modern-day capitalist controllers of the art industry, the self-defined “Art World,” consider that only elitist art can count as “Real Art.” The First World Art World has defined creative, expressive works made by peasants, workers, women, people who live in Africa, and any other oppressed groups, as crafts and curiosities, not serious Real Art (unless or until this work by unimportant individuals has been reworked or appropriated or “discovered” by a recognised member of the elite art-world).

We say that all human beings should have the opportunity and the capacity to express their feelings and ideals and visions through cultural forms, “The Doors of Culture should be open”. Those who are oppressed have been denied this form of creative expression.

Amilcar Cabral states that cultural oppression is a fundamental mechanism of imperialist domination, and said (in 1970): “If imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.” [6]

Albie Sachs said, “Revolution is a highly conscious act. It permits the unthinkable to be thought, and the unspoken to be shouted out loud.” [7] What is art if it is not saying loud the unthinkable and the forbidden?

SM: How will you see yourself engaging ‘art’ as a form of your voice to injustices?

JAS: Art is about communicating our beliefs, ideals, and visions to other people. The act of making it is just one step in this work. What has been made has to be seen and heard and debated and integrated into what people know and believe; and other people then must come up with new visions that maybe will take these ideas forward in new and different ways. As an art-maker, you cannot cut yourself off from this flowing river — indeed, your role is to swim within it.

SM: Finally, how will you want the world to remember Judy Seidman’s contribution to art-making and the struggle against injustices?

JAS: I have no real answer. In Medu we used to quote from Brecht’s poem, To Posterity:

You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Bring to mind
When you speak of our failings
Bring to mind also the dark times
That you have escaped.

Changing countries more often than our shoes,
We went through the class wars, despairing
When there was only injustice, no outrage.

And yet we realized:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. O,
We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship
Could not ourselves be friendly.

But you, when the time comes at last
When man is helper to man
Think of us
With forbearance.

Sipho Mdanda is Curator at Freedom Park and a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg

[1] Antubam attended the Pan Africanist conferences in the 40s and 50s, and became Ghana’s leading government spokesperson on culture in Kwame Nkrumah’s government, until he “retired” to teach art at Achimota).
[2] Pitika Ntuli, Louder than words (London: Pentonville Gallery, 1980).
[3] Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).
[4] Thami Mnyele, Opening remarks, Culture and Resistance Festival, Gaborone, 5–9 July 1982, unpublished paper, Judy Seidman collection.
[5] Kelley, Freedom Dreams.
[6] Amilcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture.” Lecture, Eduardo Mondlane Memorial Lecture Series, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, 20 February 1970.
[7] Albie Sachs, Images of a revolution: mural art in Mozambique (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1983).