Museum Africa
Museum Africa

MuseuMAfricA: the city's soulPrintE-mail
16 April 2002

YOU step into the typical 1950s shebeen at MuseuMAfricA in Newtown, down town Johannesburg, and an automatic motion monitor churns out a Marabi tune. You are instantly transported back in time and spontaneously overwhelmed with emotion. For those whose collective cultural memory is embedded in the permanent exhibition, the museum is pregnant with nostalgia. And complete with mannequins in Stetson hats, the gumba-gumba record player and the inescapable bar atmosphere, the shebeen comes alive.

MuseuMAfricA: telling stories that had not been told before. (Photo: Anton Hammerl, MuseuMAfricA)

Such exhibits, laying bare, as they do, the heart and soul of inner city Johannesburg, make a trip to the museum a worthwhile experience. However, the museum has also put together special displays to showcase specifically to visitors across the globe, tourists and delegates to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The FNB Vita Crafts Now Awards Exhibition, in association with Association of Potters of Southern Africa's African Earth, is an adjudicated exhibition, thus putting only the best on display. Judging the exhibitions will be professors Ian Calder of Natal University and Karel Nel of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Sponsored by the First National Bank, the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the City of Johannesburg's Cultural and Heritage Services, the exhibition carries prizes totalling more than R80 000, and includes entries from the rural areas and disadvantaged craftspeople from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The biggest craft show the country has ever seen, the exhibition will be opened, on August 17, by veteran journalist and documentary artist Denis Beckett. The awards will be presented by the executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg, Amos Masondo, who will honour the role of women in ceramics in recognition of the fact that most of the potters in the exhibition are African women.

Bonani Africa is a festival of South African Photography, showing photographic essays by 40 of the country's best photographers. To mention even one photographer, however tempting it may be, will be grossly unfair. But the exhibition covers all major issues affecting South Africa today, from poverty, HIV/Aids to questions of identity. The exhibition is accompanied by a conference entitled "Photography: Identity and History in Africa", bringing together leading academics, documentary photographers and students across the continent. Making an argument for the World Summit to pay attention to the impact of poverty and globalization on developing countries like South Africa, the exhibition is organized by South African History Online, and curated by Omar Badsha.

Lori Waselchuk, a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer with a special interest in Africa and South Africa, will exhibit her work African Nights. "Two years ago," Waselchuk says, "I began to document the life at night in the villages and cities I visit in Africa. As a journalist I often photograph the tragic and the extraordinary. But African Nights is one attempt to document ordinary life, ordinary people. I am drawn to the colours and textures of artificial light. Light is minimal, often the only light source is a single candle or lightbulb. Yet this low light creates unexpected colours and shadows."

African Nights is a collection of 50 images taken from the African countries of Angola, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya and Zambia.

Housed in what used to be the city's main fruit and vegetable market, MuseuMAfricA is Johannesburg's major history and cultural history museum. The structure of the original building, erected in 1913, has now been imaginatively built into a modern arch building, with new pillars driven into the clay soil to support the several floors, without connecting to the original outside skin of the building.

Its collections have been accumulated and preserved since 1933, when an impressive collection of Africana was bought by the Johannesburg public Library from J C Gubbins, turning the museum into Africana Museum in Progress, with most exhibitions showing collections of black traditional culture.

With funds from the City of Johannesburg, the Africana Museum reopened in 1994 as MuseuMAfricA with new displays and a mission, according to curator Diana Wall, "to tell stories that had not been told before".

And the sight of the building from outside simply invites you to discover "life" as depicted by the museum.

And once inside, you will discover that over and above the special Summit showcases, themes for the permanent displays are chosen to reflect the complex geological, social, political and economic history of South Africa, with a particular emphasis on urban life in Johannesburg since the discovery of gold.

In total, there are seven permanent displays. Gold considers the monetary, decorative and symbolic importance of the precious metal that spawned eGoli, the city of Johannesburg. What about the Workers? Recreates the noise and confusion of a rockfall in a mine tunnel. The display also contrasts the living conditions in a mine compound with a mine manager or randlord's house. It looks at the pertinent world of domestic work in South Africa and the stormy interaction of capital and labour that has influenced the country's political landscape.

Perhaps by far the most culturally evocative of the displays, Sounds of the City traces South African music from the Marabi music and dance of the 1920s slum yards to the township jazz of a Sophiatown shebeen. Born in the city's slumyards in the 1920s, the Marabi gave birth to many kinds of music in the 40s and 50s, including the "kwela", "tsaba-tsaba", "mbaqanga" and township jazz. This mockup of the country's truly first cosmopolitan setting, Sophiatown, takes your breath away.

Then there is the Birds in a Cornfield, which deals with the fight for adequate housing for all. Here an actual shack from Alexandra township, previously used as a shebeen, with real sounds, shouts, conversations and music recorded during the shebeen's "happy hour", complete with a baby's wail in the background, is featured in the display.

"There he is, Nelson Mandela, taking his first steps of freedom after 27 years in prison," unexpectedly bellows out of the speakers as you enter The Road to Democracy, a display that plays out the two roads taken by formal white politics and black resistance movements that finally met in the first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Nostalgic stuff here as well.

An interesting dimension of the politics of race in South Africa comes alive around the figure of Indian-born lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi and his resistance to discrimination. Gandhi's Johannesburg shows over 30 Johannesburg buildings and places associated with Gandhi. His experiences in Johannesburg from 1903 to 1913 shaped his philosophy of Satyagraha, passive resistance. It was from here that Gandhi's ideas of peaceful struggle spread across the world.

The final permanent display is named Tried for Treason, after the four-year trial of 156 people opposed to apartheid, including Nelson Mandela. The trial was a turning point in the consolidation of racial discrimination and of resistance to it, with many of the eventually acquitted trialists being prominent politicians and leaders of South Africa today.

Other displays capture fossil evidence of early human, stone and iron age communities in the Johannesburg area, as well as the first white settlers. The highlight of these exhibitions, as evidenced during the Centenary of the Anglo-Boer War in April this year, has to be the real leather jacket and pants worn by a Boer commander.

Entrance at MuseuMAfricA is R7 for adults and R2 for children, students and pensioners. Exhibition hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 09h00 to 17h00. The museum is closed on Mondays.



Maid and 'master' ... apartheid South Africa re-examined 
(Photo: Anton Hammerl, MuseuMAfricA)

Gramophone meets cowskin drum(Photo: Anton Hammerl, MuseuMAfricA)

The entrance to MuseuMAfricA

The interior of MuseuMAfricA, converted from the old fruit and vegetable market​