A new permanent exhibition of paintings, sketches and detailed notes about life in Women’s Jail was unveiled at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg last month.
The exhibition, titled Prison Diaries after her book by the same name, showcases anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer’s artwork during her incarceration in 1976. She was detained in solitary confinement in Women’s Jail (now part of the Constitution Hill complex) along with ten members of the Black Women’s Federation, an organisation banned by the apartheid government.
According to the accompanying statement, Prison Diary “captures some of the day-to-day stories and private moments of women who were detained and imprisoned during the liberation struggle of South Africa.” And on the opening night, it was stark the how there was a presence of black women who were not strictly defined as political prisoners, but were confined to the Women’s Prison.
In remembering the anti-apartheid struggle, certain names (often men) occupy more space in our collective memories–both globally and within South Africa. But as many of Meer’s ex-inmates attest to, the struggle was not theirs alone. Sibongile Mkhabela, a struggle heroine, ex-prisoner and now the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund explained that black women who came to Johannesburg to find their husbands during apartheid were found to be breaking the dompas rules by being black in white areas past a certain time. Those who didn’t have the required bail money were forced to the Women’s Jail.
The importance of their roles in the liberation struggle–in a way, political prisoners too–was highlighted by Constitution Hill archivists and the women who were imprisoned there.
“The pain of not telling our stories in full hit me hard,” said Mkhabela to the audience on the show’s opening night. “And by full I mean: we tended to think out liberation is fully owned by those who belonged to one party. We forget the masses. The women I saw on the rare occasions we’d be let out of our cell were subjected to extreme cruelty. I know sometimes we’re too quick to celebrate, when we haven’t gone through the pain–when we haven’t gone inside that pain. So long as we don’t know what we are forgiving, we will subject other people to the same pain. This is unless we get to know the texture, the feel of that pain.”
Taking it upon herself to visually document moments of intimacy, caring and ordinariness in prison, Meer was an archivist artist. Many of her ex-cellmates were present at the emotionally charged exhibition opening evening. Whether it was inmate’s favourite activity of braiding each other’s hair, or of embracing each other under the guise of combined prayer time between Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s yard and Meer’s–the moments showed solidarity through the corrugated tin and cement of the jail blocks.
The paintings stand out in their brilliant colouring. How did Meer manage to smuggle these colours into the prison? Meer answers through a description on a series of paintings called The Cells. “In the beginning, there was only the ballpoint pen,” she said. “Later I was allowed ballpoints of different colours. And later still came poster paint, with the strict instructions that I could paint only flowers.”
Rebellious and intelligent, Meer used the tools at hand for deliberate political purposes–nowhere in her paintings do you see flowers. What you do see are fine brushstrokes and raw sketches recreating life inside the Women’s Jail for black women political prisoners. There are women playing cards, soaking up sun on the verandahs of the cells, reading bits of newspapers and plaiting each other’s hair–both enjoyable, and a time of bonding for the inmates, according to Meer’s description of the work “Favourite Pastime.” In The Outside series of works, Meer turns her gaze to the world outside the high, confining walls. Ponte tower, as domineering as it is today, stands in the horizon. The grasp of freedom seems perilously close and the greens, in particular, jump out at you–but still, the dull brown prison wall predominates the painting.
As Gaisang Sathekge, the exhibition and events co-ordinator at Constitution Hill puts it, “she captured these scenes, private moments of what it was like to be in prison as a woman. She used recycled paper, old map books and koki pens and paint – whatever she had to make them.”
“The paintings begin to tell a story–the uncaptured, or unrecorded story about Constitution Hill, specifically the Women’s Jail,” Sathekge said in an interview with SABC. “I would say the only visual record we have of the Women’s Jail are these paintings.”
The story behind how these works made it past the prison walls, is equally remarkable–Meer created 21 paintings, some of which were then smuggled out of prison by Madikizela-Mandela. “Just yesterday I rolled up the sketches and hid them in my underwear and discreetly passed them on to our lawyer during consultation,” reads an extract from Meer’s book, Prison Diary. “Winnie had taken charge of the remaining paintings and had smuggled them out through a vagaash (black wardress).”
Women who are faceless in the current conceptions of struggle and the fight for liberation from apartheid in South Africa is what we need to see. The exhibition stands as a reminder of what the prison looked like in its most vicious years. It stands as a testament to not forgetting the past–so we can feel the texture of the pain from the women who were imprisoned here, understand their everyday experiences and break with purely masculinist notions of political struggle and prison life.