Author: Stephen Weir | Date: 18 October 2019
Following a jam-packed reception last week, the small but mighty museum exhibition Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, is now open to the public. The touring show, straight from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, is now ensconced in the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts).
“This is the exhibition for everyone who refuses to see the world in black and white,” organizers say. “When Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in South African prisons, his first state visit to Canada. Such was his affinity for our values and support.”
On Tuesday afternoon the Caribbean Camera toured the exhibit at the Meridian Art Centre. The exhibition hall is part of a complex that includes two theatres on Yonge Street (between Finch and Sheppard) in North Toronto.
The Mandela show was quiet – staff and volunteers outnumbered the paying customers - when I went through the two-floor exhibition with photographer Tony Sladden.
After going through the rigmarole of ticket scanning one enters a long hall that is dimly lit. We are told it is because the exhibits highlight the dark days of Nelson Mandela’s fight for justice and human dignity in South Africa. After passing an entrance wall of White Only signs we soon come to a 7ft by 8ft life-size replica of Mandela’s cell in the infamous Robben Island Prison (pictured top of page).
No display can properly show the horror of what prisoner 446-64 (Mandela) had to endure for eighteen years. However, by using the walls of the jail as a screen for newsreels made during the South Africa’s white-supremacist regime – one gets a feel of a world about to explode. Periodically a shadow of Mandela reading a book is projected onto the wall along with some of his most pithy statements about truth, equality and freedom.
Nearby there is a battered suitcase that holds all the contents of a South African Black family who were forced out of their home during the tumultuous days of Mandela’s incarceration. The replica suitcase only has room for a child’s teddy bear, a frying pan and jars of buttons and peanuts.
Climbing up a steep staircase (yes there is an elevator available) we are almost blinded by the light of on coming riot truck. Cut in half and stuck to the wall, the actual police vehicle shows the powerful and deadly response that the government of the day used to quell Black protestors. On another wall, there are garbage can lids that young Black men used as flimsy shields against police bullets.
Entering the final area of the display the lighting gets brighter. Mandela has been freed. The South African government has been replaced. Mandela has come to Canada with his wife Winnie to speak to Parliament. Life is not perfect, but Freedom has arrived.
Our photographer, who has been on the Robben Island and did see the actual prison cell Mandela, lived in and the rock pile he worked at every day. He says that it is an emotional experience for anyone of colour.
“ I took pictures at Robben Island three years ago, but it feels like yesterday” said Tony Sladden. “This Toronto show is smaller, and much different to actually being there. But, this message is so powerful and worthwhile. People should see it!”
And what did I think about it? I had a minor involvement with a press visit Mandela made to Toronto in the 90s and experienced firsthand the power of the man’s influence on Canadian media and our country’s leader.
The show’s use of modern exhibition tools from lighting to videos to sound, really gives a solid overview of Mandela’s victorious struggle against apartheid. However, this is only a thumbnail sketch of the man, little is said of the family side of his life. His parents. His upbringing.
Winnie Mandela’s signature appears in a Canadian government visitor’s book, but no real mention of how controversial his second wife was. I didn’t see any reference (but there is a lot to read) to Mandela’s first and third wives nor his six children – they deserve a voice too.
During the three-month run of the exhibition there are a number of concerts and lectures planned for the Meridian and other sites. The Kingdom Choir, who performed at Prince Henry and Meghan Markle’s wedding will perform on November 5 and 6. The South African theatre company Isango Ensemble will be downtown at the Bluma Appel Theatre November 15 and 16. There are also four discussion evenings moderated by former radio personality Garvin Bailey at three different locations. There is also be a public Gala launch later this month.
Mandela runs until January 5, 2020. There is a $10 admission charge to tour the exhibition.