‘Engage with Black history all year around’: Digital art project brings anti-apartheid struggle home

Tina’s artwork: 'Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!’ (Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre )
Tina’s artwork: 'Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!’ (Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre )

Engagement with Black history within the UK should be all year around, an artist has said as a new digital artwork is released in London.

The initiative, called Anti-Apartheid, Now, forms part of the Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre for Learning & Memory’s efforts to teach Londoners about the heritage of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the UK’s role within it.

It has commissioned seven artists, all of whom reside in the UK but come from global majority backgrounds, which it defines as people who are Black, Brown, Asian, dual or mixed heritage, indigenous to the global south, and/or those who have been racialised as ‘ethnic minority’.

Currently in redevelopment by Liliesleaf Trust UK, the centre plans to open in April 2024 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa.

The artwork launching this month, titled ‘Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!’ focuses on the role lesser-known women in Africa had in the anti-apartheid movement.

Artist Tina Ramos Ekongo spoke to the Evening Standard about the women she chose to portray: “Normally, women are at home, cooking and taking care of the children. We have the right to vote, we have a say in things going on in our countries. But I think the way these women changed things or how Western society saw them helped a lot. For instance, Winnie Mandela raised her voice.

“Everyone knows about her in South Africa, a very strong woman, and having that role in that time is amazing. I’ve grown up in Africa and have been told being an artist is not really a good choice. I am the opposite – I’m outspoken, I’m an artist and I fight for women’s rights. They have a specific role in the anti-apartheid movement. I didn’t want to do Western Black figures but African Black figures.”

Tina, a Spanish-Equatorial Guinean, who lives in North West England, learnt about the project through an Instagram post, and decided to depict five Black and Brown female activists.

Her portraits are of Amina Cachalia, Annie Silinga, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Rahima Moosa and Ida Mntwana, painted on cardboard, which she said reflects the (mis)representation of Black women in the mainstream.

Tina’s artwork: 'Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!’ (Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre)
Tina’s artwork: 'Umfazi, Owesifazane, Vrou!’ (Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre)

“The idea is to have the African fabric on the background. I am using cardboard because when I started painting on it, I felt Black women are misrepresented in the media and in art, so for me to paint them on a material you can bin is rubbish, but I give value to the material by painting Black women on it. So, it’s the opposite perspective,” she said.

Her portraits are in mixed-media acrylic, African fabric and collage on cardboard, and the women depicted wearing garments and accessories, to set them apart as “beautiful and resilient black women”, who may have been undervalued in Western societies.

Whilst the seven artists who were commissioed did not need extensive knowledge of the anti-apartheid movement, the project’s producer, Matthew Hanh assists them in ensuring their work informs the history to which it responds.

The first piece, which released earlier this year, responded to the bombing of Penton Street, the which was the headquarters of the African National Congress Party.

Caroline Kamana, Director of Liliesleaf Trust UK said: “The creative response is to the both the heritage but then on ongoing contemporary societal issues. And most importantly connecting that with lived experience, which is something that Tina was touching on. Tina’s commission will launch this month.”

“The brief for her commission was put out with a mention of Black History Month, but the word ‘Month’ was struck through because we believe wholeheartedly that Black history is fundamentally a part of everybody’s history and should be celebrated more widely than on a specific month.”

We are juxtaposing the release date with the premise that there should be 365 days a year for engagement with Black heritage within the UK. Tina’s response was exceptionally strong.

“We felt that the highlighting of women in particular who were part of the struggle was a really important and necessary thing to do because traditionally women’s voices have either been erased or side-lined from telling that story. We were further excited by the particular women Tina was proposing to focus her work. Some of the stories have either never been widely heard, certainly within the UK context or have been misrepresented.”

Caroline hopes the project, alongside the centre’s other activities, opens up a gateway for people to learn and reflect on this history: “There certainly is a disproportionate number of possibilities, particularly for young people, to explore the role models of women within the struggle against apartheid.”

“One of the aims of this project, and Tina’s in particular, is to provide resources as a springboard for conversations to happen.”

“We want to encourage young people to look more widely and past the usual figures that appear at this time of the year, and not to diminish them in any way, but the figures of Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks, who are fantastic role models, but perhaps are very often heralded as people to study, whereas we would like to raise the profile of women who were fundamentally important in their contributions to the struggle against apartheid and whose stories haven’t been heard.”

The group has also worked with young people from Upward Bound, an attainment and aspiration-raising Saturday school run by Islington Council, London Metropolitan University and graphic design organisation, Penificent, to co-create comic strips about the struggle.

“They had very little knowledge of the anti-apartheid struggle because it is not taught at schools as part of mainstream curriculum, which is partly due to colonial overhangs of the history curriculum,” said Caroline.

The project’s team track its progress through surveys and consultation groups. It is publicly funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust and Islington Borough’s Initiative Fund.

Tina’s artwork can be found here.