Amita Makan Makeba Unveiling: UNISA | | Art in South Africa
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Makeba Unveiling: UNISA

University of South Africa - 5 May 2011

Speech by Amita Makan

Honourable Dean of the College of Human Sciences, Professor Rosemary Moeketsi;
Vice Principal of Academic Research, Professor Rita Mare;
Curator of the Unisa Gallery, Mr Bongani Mkhonza;
Communication and Marketing Specialist at the College of Human Sciences, Ms Karen Reynecke; Ladies and gentlemen;

I want to express my deep and sincere gratitude to the University of South Africa for inviting me to introduce my oil portrait of Mama Zenzile Miriam Makeba. It is a great honor to have my painting grace the Dr Miriam Makeba Concert Hall at UNISA, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in South Africa. Thank you for this privilege. I am deeply touched.

This monochromatic oil portrait of Miriam Makeba entitled ‘Miriam Makeba, 1965’ is based on a photograph of her performing in the United States in 1965. She was 33 years old. The year 1965 was to be a momentous year for Makeba as she became the first African to receive a Grammy Award. She had been catapulted to the world stage after six years of exile from South Africa. In the original photograph she is sharing the stage with jazz musicians Bill Slater and Sam Brown. The photograph is part of the Miriam Makeba Collection of photographs. Sadly, we do not know who took the photograph.

This painting is the first in a series of six works called ‘Recollections of Miriam Makeba’ which I started in December 2009. Earlier that year, in September, my dear mother had succumbed to a long illness that had spanned twelve years. I was grieving my loss when I started reading Miriam Makeba’s biography. Precious photographs of her, together with the story of her life narrated in the first person, inspired me to paint and to embroider Miriam Makeba’s story. I was subconsciously moving from a personal series of my own mother to a series about ‘Mama Afrika’ - the Mother of the African continent.

As I said, my series was inspired by the biography, entitled The Miriam Makeba Story: Miriam Makeba in conversation with Nomsa Mwamuka, by STE Publishers. I am thankful to the Publisher, Mr Reedwaan Vally, for granting me permission to render images and text from this publication.

Photographs of Miriam Makeba during her thirty-one years in exile shows a beautiful, gracious, fashionable, African jazz singer resplendent in African attire and in couture fashion. The style of my painting is photorealist. The simple palette of black, white, brown with a soupcon of red, speaks to the photograph’s documentary appeal. The softened sepia tones and blurred outlines are symbolically associated with Memory and the Past.

During her exile, we in South Africa were denied Makeba’s youthful diva presence, at a time when we most needed our heroines. The painting can spark our imagination on her world-class performances. The viewer is invited to revel in Makeba’s youth and beauty of a time now past. Nostalgia intermingles with the reality that Miriam Makeba is now deceased.

This painting of Miriam Makeba, like the series itself, draws on the Universal Law of the Impermanence of Life. Youth and Beauty intimate Memento Mori and Tempus Fugit. There is tension in suspending ‘the magic of the stopped moment’ with the inevitable decay associated with time. The highly regarded American philosopher, Susan Sontag, in her book, On Photography, writes,

“Photography is the inventory of mortality…. Photographs show people so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives, group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies.”

Miriam Makeba’s biography is illuminating, heart-rending and, at the same time, inspiring. Despite her sadness and immense suffering, she radiated beauty and mesmerized millions with her voice and music.

My series was born from her narrative. It reflects on her beauty and sadness. Some works are photorealist in style while others, with the gold leaf, vinyl records and Swarovski crystals, are of fantasy. Miriam Makeba’s story forms the backdrop to this painting.

She was born on the 4th of March 1932 in Prospect township in Johannesburg. She came from three generations of female Sangomas, and was the child of a Xhosa man and a Swazi woman. Following repeated harassment from the apartheid state, Makeba went into exile in 1959 leaving her baby, family and friends behind. She left South Africa with ‘two little suitcases’.

Makeba recorded two songs before going into exile ‘Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa’, written by Gibson Kente, and ‘Iphindlela’, translated as ‘Show Me The Way’. In her words, “I was asking my ancestors and all my people for good and safe passage until I came back”. The songs were released in South Africa after she left. At the time of her departure, she had no idea that she would spend thirty-one, long and often painful, years in exile.

Makeba’s songs and music were banned in South Africa after she appeared before the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid to support the call for the international boycott of South Africa in 1963. She was 31 years old when she addressed the UN. On her experience of being in exile Makeba said:

“I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile”. The apartheid government denied her permissi on to attend her mother’s funeral, and her passport was revoked. She was only to return to South Africa on the 10th of June 1990. Miriam Makeba encountered enormous personal and political challenges, but she persevered. She overcame the difficulties of four divorces, she survived cervical cancer and had to deal with the loss of her only child and two grandchildren.

Miriam Makeba is intrinsic to South Africa’s collective psyche. She was the daughter of a Sangoma, a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a songwriter, a renowned jazz singer, a political activist and an exile. Miriam Makeba is a symbol of womanhood, unity and anti-xenophobia. She is a South African, an African and a global female icon.

She unified - and continues to unify - South Africa and the African continent through her music. During her exile she traveled across Africa and sang songs in the languages of the countries she visited. She also wrote and sang freedom songs. Even before she left South Africa, Makeba was referred to as ‘Africa’s Freedom Song’.

Miriam Makeba was the recipient of The Dag Hammarskjold Peace Award in 1988. In 2002, she received the Commandeur Insigneur of the Legion of Honour Award from the French President for being a model citizen of the world. Makeba was also the first woman and the first African to receive the Swedish Polar Music Prize, amongst the most esteemed music awards in the world. The Polar Music Prize is awarded to ‘individuals, groups or institutions in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music’.

Following the democratic transition in 1994, Miriam Makeba was appointed South Africa’s Goodwill Ambassador to Africa, and was an Ambassador for the United Nations. She received twelve honorary doctorates, including an Honorary Doctorate for Literature and Philosophy from UNISA.

As an artist, I felt that Miriam Makeba is visually under-represented. My series, in a small way, tries to redress this lacuna. The archival photographs, from which the art works are drawn, are part of South Africa’s ‘veiled history’. As Mariam Makeba’s visual story is not easily accessible to the majority of South Africans, I hope my series will further embellish her story, and help carry forward the ideals that guided her life.

On reflecting on her life, Miriam Makeba writes,

“… my life has been this pool in which the past and the present and the future continuously swirl around together. We all splash about a bit in this pool of life; our mortal beings may leave this pool, but our spirits remain.”

In naming this Hall after Miriam Makeba, UNISA has helped to ensure her luminous spirit is kept alive.

I thank you.

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