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NMMU exhibition tells the stories of strong EC women

NOVEMBER 24, 2014
NMMU exhibition tells the stories of strong EC women

SAARTJIE Baartman, Dora Nginza, Molly Blackburn – these are just some of the women whose names are synonymous with changing times in the Eastern Cape.

However, there are countless others – of all races and ages – who played a critical role in shaping this province. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University is paying homage to these fearless women in an exhibition which chronicles their stories, covering the time period from the late 1700s to modern times.

The exhibition – which includes factual and anecdotal information, poetry and photographs on 18 attractively-designed, ceiling-high panels – will be launched today (24 November) but open to the public from Tuesday (25 November) in the Archive Exhibition Centre on NMMU’s Second Avenue Campus. The exhibition runs until November next year.

“The role of womenin the shaping of Eastern Cape history – their stories of marginalisation and oppression, but also of agency and resistance – must be told,” said curator Christelle Grobler.

“For most of South Africa’s history, women have been repressed – socially, politically, economically and even domestically. Black women were doubly disadvantaged as a result of their race and gender. The subordination of women of all races has rendered them relatively absent from the historical record … This is why their stories need to be told.”

Filling the first panel is the story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, the orphaned Khoi woman who was lured to England and France on account of her unusual buttocks and genitalia, to be exhibited in freak shows.

However, over and above the facts, the panel gives viewers some insight into her feisty character. For instance, a French scientist and four European artists spent three days trying to force Baartman to undress for them so they could paint her and examine her. “Sarah Baartman had grown up with the trauma of violence, but she had also grown up with a spirit of determined resistance to violation,” reads a quote.

The province’s first missionaries and settlers are documented next. Among them is early missionary women Janet Soga, a Scot who was married to the first black Xhosa minister, Tiyo Soga. They had eight children, among them the province’s first medical missionary, the first Xhosa historian and the country’s first veterinary surgeon.

Among the settlers are Harriet Ward, the province’s first journalist, and botanist Mary Elizabeth Barber, who used to exchange ideas with Charles Darwin. The Victorian-era settlers are contrasted with the hardier “trekker” women, like Susanna Smit, who said she would rather die than put up with British authority.

The start of urbanisation and industrialisation comes next and with it, the filling of factories by women, and the rise of that urban ill, prostitution, which was most popular among visiting soldiers at Port Elizabeth’s Fort Frederick.

With the factories came the earliest trade unions, with strong women emerging, like Katie Gelvan (after whom Gelvan Township, later Gelvandale, was named) and Yetta Barenblatt in East London, a skilled union negotiator, who would later be detained during the 1960 State of Emergency.

The “Lovedale women”, those involved in the famed Lovedale College, attended by Nelson Mandela, are also documented.  Dora Nginza, who would becomean iconic nursing sister in New Brighton, was an early Lovedale graduate.

The exhibition tells the story of rural women and provides insight into the changing dynamics of rural communities, when the discovery of gold and diamonds saw farming men moving to cities to work in mines.

In another panel, viewers get a glimpse of the prophetess Nontetha Nkwenkwe, who in the 1920s preached a synthesis of Christian and Xhosa spirituality. She had a large following, but was regarded as a subversive by the government, and confined in psychiatric institutions, where she died in isolation in 1935.

Apartheid is the theme of the last few panels, from black farming families evicted from white-owned farms to the devastation of forced removals. These panels pay tribute to the many women who fought apartheid: those who played key roles in the Defiance Campaign to fight the pass laws, the 1956 Women's March and the Treason Trial, along with the fearless trade unionists and white women who fought apartheid, like Black Sash’s Molly Blackburn and Janet Cherry, now an associate professor at NMMU.



Photo Caption: CELEBRATING STRONG WOMEN … Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Archive Exhibition Centre launches its latest exhibition, “The role of women in the shaping of Eastern Cape history”, today (24 November). It will be open to the public from Tuesday (25 November).