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29 novembre 2007

Powerful insight into iconic South African

MOVING TRIBUTE: The activist looms large at the Apartheid Museum Picture: KATHERINE MUICK-MERE

A historical exhibition can be boring if not handled well. But the Steve Biko exhibition at the Apartheid Museum is one of the most powerful Joburg has seen in a long time.

Steve Biko: Quest for a True Humanity is the first major exhibition to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of this father of black consciousness in South Africa. Five months in the planning, it is anything but dry.

Telling a story of unbelievable cruelty and resolute dignity, it is designed to make you understand Biko, cry for the loss this country suffered when he died, and celebrate the values he instilled in the youth.

Beginning with a massive panel containing a repeat design of Biko’s face, coloured in greys with touches of red, the show reflects a sexy icon evolved with indomitable dignity. Its story is horrendous and proud and begins long before Biko was born, on December 18 1946. It starts in the mid-19th century, when African intellectualism was mooted. Curator Emilia Potenza sensitively distils the ideas that shaped Biko’s thinking.

The exhibition continues through Biko’s life of rebellion and reflection on injustice, to its horrifying end and chilling aftermath. “It leaves me cold,” Jimmy Kruger, the then Minister of Police crassly declared shortly after Biko’s death on September 12 1977. Those responsible never told what happened; they appealed to the truth commission for amnesty but never apologised.

The exhibition concludes with colourful graphics: the faces of different people responding to Biko — from President Thabo Mbeki to musician Johnny Clegg, high school kids and US rapper Keith Murray.

“If you’re young and conscious,” Murray says, “sooner or later you’ll hear about Steve Biko.”

The exhibition is complemented by hand-picked quotes and beautiful photographs, and curator Potenza and designer Megan Futter have obviously invested a lot of care here.

Throughout, Biko’s earnest young face is omnipresent, often ghostlike, in the printed fabric panels. His voice and the sound of his name thread themselves through the show, filtering into your awareness of his passionate and pervading influence.

The exhibition, commissioned and funded by the National Department of Education and created in collaboration with the Steve Biko Foundation, features the only recorded interview with Biko, and Peter Gabriel’s Biko, considered among the most influential protest songs of the ’80s. Mantra-like, the repetition of Gabriel singing Biko’s name filters through the exhibition, which also pays moving tribute to the dozens of almost-forgotten freedom fighters who also died in detention.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously offered advice to young poets: “No one can help you.” Similarly, Biko empowered black youth: “Black man, you are on your own.”

Christopher Till, director of the museum, says: ‘‘In this exhibition, we do not deify Biko. We aim to reflect on him as he was and place him in contemporary culture. Biko has become a popular youth icon, on a par with Che Guevara, but kids don’t know about Biko really.”

Steve Biko: Quest for a True Humanity is on until the end of June. Phone 011- 309-4700.

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