The corner of Hanover and Tennant Streets. Picture: JAN GRESHOFF
The corner of Hanover and Tennant Streets. Picture: JAN GRESHOFF
IMPORTERS: The Little Wonder Store, Donor Leonard Stern.
IMPORTERS: The Little Wonder Store, Donor Leonard Stern.

The District Six Museum Homecoming Centre acknowledges District Six’s 50th anniversary. LUCINDA JOLLY contextualises.

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of District Six. Marks rather than celebrates. For how can one celebrate 50 years since the forced removal of 60 000 people, one tenth of the city’s population, when during that time, little if, nothing, has been done to make amends?

For the first time in the brief history of The Cape Town Art Fair, Cape Town museums and national galleries were included in the smorgasbord of galleries drawn from the African and European continents. Initially there was some resistance to its inclusion. The positioning of a museum in a commercial art fair? But the current CTAF director Matthew Partridge stuck to his guns. Its inclusion by Partridge was a cultural one and was represented by the photographs of Giovanni Ozzola from his exhibition Adrift.

Ozzola works with found objects and immerses himself in the sites of people’s stories. Ozzola’s work, which includes photographs, engraved ship propellers, bells and incised metal plates reminiscent of travel routes “often speaks about a feeling of connected-ness, despite being physically alone” a good fit for District Six.

When Museum director Bonita Bennett was asked by detractors why District Six was part of the CTAF with the allusion to it as an exclusive event, her knee-jerk response was why shouldn’t we be? In terms of its role as museum in a cultural sphere, and furthermore referencing the fact that a lot of the museum was started by artists, it seems appropriate.

Like any major city, Cape Town has a number of museums – those specifically dedicated to the arts are our Iziko National Gallery, New Church Museum based on the private collection of Piet Viljoen and made available to the public through public exhibitions and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) drawn from Jochen Seitz’s Seitz Collection, which will form the museum’s founding collection and will be opened near year-end.

Although galleries and museums may overlap, essentially a museum is defined as “an organized and permanent non-profit institution, essentially educational or aesthetic in purpose” governed by three principle functions; collection, research, and public programs.

The Homecoming Centre was started 21 and a half years ago. Before that, from the 1980’s it existed as an itinerant museum. When Bennett first came to the museum there was “a room full of stuff “and no formal curatorial plan for the museum. Originally “the plan” Bonita says “wasn’t to have a museum”, but a place to “to assert people’s rights”. It was seen as a place to capture memories of people, to assert their right to return. Also a way of accessing their memories in lieu of the absence of District Six landmarks.

What is currently happening is a return to the early beginnings with a concentration on oral histories. There is a move afoot to organise a big campaign for both the returning families and all the descendants’ communities. Bennett points out interestingly, that although it hasn’t been well-researched, all the older generation wants is “to be back at the foot of Table Mountain”, all the younger generation want is to remain in their current communities.

District Six’s anniversary coincides with a re-energising of the campaign to have the site, not the museum, declared a national heritage site. Although this was approved in 2006 by SAHRA (SA Heritage Resources Agency) it still needs to go through the gazetting process. Bennett points out that what makes this an unusual request is that it’s that normally tangible objects and things that are declared national heritage sites. Whereas this heritage site is a site of absence.

To this end conversations as to what makes District Six special, if at all, were had. What ultimately emerged from all the conversations wasn’t the importance of music, culture, literature or political life but displacement in the shape of forced removals. Bennett suggests that “it felt like a more apt time to link this with the start of the displacement” and “to put the absence in the centre of things again”.

“The dream is that every returning resident of District Six must be able to say this is what it means to live in a national heritage site and this is why it’s important to me – or not important”, she said. The wrought iron gates of the centre, a graphic interpretation by the late Peter Clarke of Langston Hughes poem Dreams, remind us to “hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

The issues around District Six don’t exist in a vacuum and the Homecoming Centre in the Sacks Futeran building recognises the impact forced removal continues to have on many communities from Ndabeni, Cato Manor, to Sophiatown and where the original District Six were relocated and their descendents now belong. The Museum held a conference regarding this impact. Bennett, whose musician father was a District Sixer, has a personal take on why these communities didn’t have the thriving artistic and political feel of District Six. Although the inhabitants were removed they continued to put their creative energies and talents into District Six and what they still considered home, instead of the communities where they were relocated .

To represent the movement of forced removal the Centre launched the suitcase campaign which will run for a year. It took a long time before the symbol of a suitcase was accepted as a symbol of movement, in this case forced movement. Bennett explains that at first the suitcase felt like a much more gentrified way of moving, considering the way people normally moved in these particular communities. Boxes, bags and pillow cases were used rather than the suitcase. However since its acceptance, Bennett believes that it has become a very effective symbol. Dotted around the centre are suitcases complete with information tags containing precious contents; a wedding and baptism certificate, crockery and the odd torn photograph. The suitcase campaign is a close parallel with the popular memory boxes of which there are a few in the museum and which contain the things that make up the family archive. Tangible objects hold precious memories which would have accompanied the displaced to their new home- family albums, rent receipts and baptism certificates.

Also on exhibition is a travelling photographic exhibition about the people of Usakos, Namibia who were forcibly removed to make way for a railway line – Photographs Beyond Ruin: The Old Location Albums, 1920s to 1960s. Projects include classes in photograph.

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