DAY EIGHT: South Africa’s Blue Dress: art as an alternative record of sexual and gender-based violence

In this post, Eliza Garnsey explores how the powerful South African artworks “The Blue Dress” provide an alternative record of women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Picture above: Fig.1: Installation view of Judith Mason, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (The Blue Dress) (1998), triptych, inside the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Photography by Akona Kenqu (2014). 

Eliza Garnsey

Inside the Constitutional Court of South Africa hangs Judith Mason’s The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent, more commonly known as The Blue Dress (Fig. 1). The Court is a unique space by international comparison because it houses a large visual art collection developed by the court, and for the court.

In this post I explore The Blue Dress as an alternative record of women’s experiences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); experiences which are largely absent from the official record of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC).[1] [MF1] 

Mason created The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (The Blue Dress) to commemorate Phila Ndwandwe and Harold Sefola who were members of the African National Congress (ANC) fighting for freedom from apartheid. They were murdered by security branch officers of the South African Police in the late 1980s. The stories of their deaths emerged during the amnesty hearings of the SATRC . 

Sefola was an ANC activist, who—along with two of his colleagues, Jackson Maake and Andrew Makupe—was abducted, tortured and murdered. During his interrogation, Sefola requested to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (God Bless Africa). Maake, Makupe and Sefola were electrocuted to death. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica is now the national anthem of South Africa. Sefola was the man who sang. 

Ndwandwe was a member of uMkonte weSizwe (spear of the nation, also known as MK) which was the armed wing of the ANC. She was exiled to Swaziland after being arrested in South Africa. From Swaziland, Ndwandwe was the acting commander of Natal MK activities. Ndwandwe disappeared in 1988. The SATRC investigation into her disappearance uncovered evidence against seven security branch officers who were responsible for Ndwandwe’s abduction, detention, and murder. Their testimonies led to Ndwandwe’s remains being located; her body was found with remnants of a blue plastic bag, most often cited as being fashioned into a pair of underwear, wrapped around her body. Ndwandwe was the woman who kept silent; who was silenced. 

Fig 2. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent I (The Blue Dress), found plastic bags, thread, white paint, approx. 200 × 70 × 45 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO

In response, Mason sewed a dress from blue plastic bags (Fig. 2) on the hem of which she wrote a letter to Ndwandwe: 

Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, commonsensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level you shamed your captors, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hambe kahle. Umkhonto [Go well, Spear of the Nation]. 

Judith Mason, artist

Mason uses plastic bags to emphasize Ndwandwe’s resistance to the violation of her bodily autonomy, and ultimately her life. In contrast to their material fragility, plastic bags become markers of Ndwandwe’s defiance. They are transformed from refuse into powerful sacred objects.

The form of the dress and the way in which it gestures to women’s experiences in anti-apartheid struggles is critical. The SATRC has been widely critiqued for failing to address the experiences of many women, especially in relation to the politics of SGBV. By focusing on the direct victims of gross human rights violations, the SATRC resulted in a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women. This was compounded by the Commission’s determination that in the context of their mandate to grant amnesty for politically motivated violence, rape was not considered to be political. Although this determination was “motivated by an interest in heightened accountability for rape” it sent a problematic message about the recognition of the politics of SGBV.

The SATRC report emphasizes Ndwandwe’s modesty, dignity, and nakedness at the time of her death over and above her role as a trained political operative and her resistance to torture and rape. The Blue Dress points towards the suspected sexual violence experienced by Ndwandwe which the SATRC record failed to acknowledge; violence represented in the paintings by the imagery of the hyena tearing the dress in the dirt (FIGs. 3 and 4).

In the letter on the dress, Mason describes the plastic bag as a weapon; one which shamed Ndwandwe’s captors. The implication is that the plastic bag prevented further violence. The focus is on Ndwandwe’s resistance to victimhood, rather than her victimization—a contrast to the official record.

Fig. 3. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent II, oil on canvas, 190 × 160 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO 
Fig. 4. Judith Mason, 1998, The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent III, oil on canvas, 166 × 122 cm. Constitutional Court Art Collection, Johannesburg. Photography by Ben Law-Viljoen. © Succession Judith Mason | DALRO 

The Blue Dress comes to symbolise the many victims and survivors of SGBV whose stories remain absent from the official record. The artwork imbues plastic bags and their ubiquitous presence with symbolic meaning about “the pervasive violence enacted on women’s bodies”. Taken together, the materiality of the plastic bags and the gendered symbolism of the dress, create the possibility of an alternative record. 

The presence of The Blue Dress at the centre of South Africa’s constitutional democracy is a critical reminder of what is missing elsewhere. 

[1] The post draws on six months of participant observation fieldwork at the Court, which involved 54 interviews with people associated with the Court, including judges, law clerks, staff members, artists, and visitors, as well as visual and archival research. 

This post draws on ideas explored in The Justice of Visual Art: Creative State-Building in Times of Political Transition(CUP, 2020) and in ‘South Africa’s Blue Dress: (Re)imagining Human Rights through Art’, Angelaki 24/4 (2019) 38-51 (published here with the permission of Taylor and Francis). Free copies of the article are available here

Eliza Garnsey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in International Relations at the University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College Cambridge. She is currently an Honorary Associate at the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney. Eliza’s research focuses on art and visual culture in international relations and world politics, particularly in relation to human rights, transitional justice, and conflict. Her book, The Justice of Visual Art: Creative State-Building in Times of Political Transition (CUP, 2020), explores how art can engage and shape ideas of justice in ways which have the capacity to address identity divisions and exclusions in nations emerging from conflict.

You can follow her on Twitter @Eliza_Garnsey

Author: uoegendered

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