Post-Apartheid Art and the Experience of Trauma

My name is Jillian, and I’m getting ready to leave Edmonton for Johannesburg, South Africa to research expressions of trauma in the post-apartheid era. As a political science and sociology double major at the U of A, I spend a lot of my time learning and studying injustice in structures of power. In the winter semester of 2018, I took a political science course that dealt with reconciliation and commemoration after trauma. One class that stood out for me focused on the usage of art as a way to express the experience of trauma through commemoration in post-Apartheid South Africa.

After this class, I became intensely interested in the usage of art as a subversive means of reconciling after a state-induced trauma and delved into a research paper focusing on just that. The following is an excerpt from said paper:

“Art, as a whole, represents an attempt to seek alternative routes to reconciliation and commemoration that is both intensely personal, and explicitly public. Further, art functions as a way to shape and reconstruct oppressive narratives post-trauma. It is through these such channels that collective memory, and the critical resistance to collective memory, becomes a newly resistant discourse focused on a shift to a change in the social world. Critical engagement with trauma through art enters the realm of the politic when it becomes a commentary on the experience of, and response to trauma. This is an automatically fulfilled criteria when art is created out of trauma, meaning that post-trauma art, inherently, becomes a vehicle of reconciliation and remembrance of trauma.” (Bevan, 2018).

I highlight this excerpt as, essentially, this is what I have chosen to shape my research around as I travel to South Africa. As I embark on this sociological research of the expression and experience of commemorative art pieces in South Africa in the post-apartheid era, I am choosing to remember that my critical engagement with art as a form of resistance and remembrance is going to come from an outsider’s perspective. As an outsider, I have to try not to impose my interpretations so that I can objectively look at the exhibits and pieces (in museums, galleries, and public spaces) as expressions of trauma. After all, the purpose of my study is to analyze not only the pieces themselves but observe the people who engage with them and further compare the different ways art is used as a subversive form of commemoration.

As my departure draws close, I am looking forward to starting my time there by learning more about the history of South Africa and the history of Apartheid, so I can better ground my art-focused research in the learning that will take place through cultural and historical tours and experiences. Getting all of that organized from Edmonton, though, is proving to be a challenge. Even with all my research on what to do and see for this project, I still don’t entirely know what places, museums and galleries will be the most useful to me. This is especially so since I’m sure I will come across places that will be relevant to my research when I arrive!

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