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Audio, Video Installation At Williams College Recalls South African Apartheid

A moving exhibition now on display at Williams College recalls the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa.Multiple recorded voices and a constant drum of music eerily echo throughout Thompson Chapel on the Williams College campus. Television screens scattered amongst the pews play different video clips on a loop. The voices are those of people who told their experiences during apartheid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings across the country after the official system of racial segregation was abolished in the 1990s.

Since there are 11 national languages in South Africa, each person was allowed to give and hear testimony in their own language. This created a jumble of translators, wires and headphones. The exhibition, called ReWind, purposely includes headphones for listening. Here an English speaker translates the testimony of a mother explaining how she came to know of her son’s 1986 death by watching the news. 

“And one of the children was shown on the TV who had a gun on his chest,” Eunica Miya said. “Only to find out it’s my son, Jabulani. I prayed. I said ‘Oh no, Lord.’ I wish this news could just rewind.”

The project is set to music composed by Philip Miller, who spent hours sifting through the Commission tapes. The sound of rewinding videos is heard throughout the piece.

With the help of professors David Eppel and Brad Wells, the original 2007 project was partly commissioned at Williams. Then featuring a live choir, ReWind was shown around the world including at Williams and in South Africa. The video version was put together by South African artists Gerhard and Maya Marx. One piece recalls the testimony of a man who received a bomb in the mail set to the image of a smoldering envelope.

“It was addressed to me,” the man says. “Inside were two religious magazines. The magazines were sealed in plastic. I ripped open the plastic. I took out the magazines. I opened the English magazine. The act of opening the magazine was the detonating device for a bomb. But because I was opening it down on a low angle it blew off my hands. I lost an eye. My eardrums were shattered. I’ve often asked the question about the person who made it. The person who typed my name. What did they tell their children that night they did that day?”

Somehow the man later says that he would be willing to forgive whoever sent him the bomb if he or she said “sorry.”

“I’d love to be able to say to them ‘of course I forgive you’ in that context,” the man continued. “Thank you very much.”

The Commission also had the authority to grant amnesty for perpetrators of human rights violations if there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. A warning: this next piece of testimony may be upsetting to some.

“Pull the bag over the person’s head and twist it close around the neck in that way cutting off the air supply,” said the man.

David Eppel, who worked on ReWind, is a professor of theatre at Williams and a native South African who came to the U.S. in the 1980s. He recalls the reaction to the project of a Williams student who was born in South Africa after apartheid was abolished.

“His response was the best,” Eppel said. “He said ‘Perhaps if we listen to this we don’t have to rewind. We can go on.’ I like to think that’s true. I don’t know if it is. It’s obviously a very moving piece. But there have been these truth commissions all over the world. This one was probably based on the one in Chile. Who knows whether they are satisfactory things or not. Just because you say you did something you get amnesty. I don’t know. Nobody does. Is that good enough? I’m not sure and neither are any of the creators of this piece.”

Seven television screens showing segments of ReWind are also placed across campus as a way to disrupt people’s everyday lives and recall what happened. The installation runs through April 17.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu was the Commission chair.

“We have been moved to tears,” Tutu is recorded as saying in the piece. “We have laughed. We have been silent and we have stared the beast of our dark past in the eye. And we have survived the ordeal.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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