I was thinking about being in the queue for a vaccine when this popped up on Alex Dodd’s Instagram feed, reminding me of the Q of Qs for South Africans of my generation and a million other things, all connected … and not. I mean queue, not question … although that works too
Yesterday, I got to see artist, architect and filmmaker Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda Project at Zeitz Mocaa – at last. I can’t believe I nearly missed it.
I was particularly struck by the inclusion of this luminous text work inspired by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, below. Much of her literary work was produced during The Great Terror (1936-1938) – a time of immense political suppression under the Soviet Union.
I discovered her poetry as part of a small extra-curricular poetry collective run by the poet Robert Berold in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) during the second State of Emergency when I was at university.
Hippos (armoured vehicles) would drive on to the campus at night to seize student activists and take them into detention without trial. It didn’t happen routinely, but it happened. Akhmatova became one of my favourite poets.
When I turned 50, my friend Angela Craig, who initiated those red-wine fuelled poetry nights, painted me a portrait of Akhmatova, which now hangs above my desk.
A few years after we left university, Angela and our late friend Anne Store (who died in a head-on collision in 1996) drove up from Cape Town to Johannesburg, so that we could vote together in South Africa’s first democratic election.
I was living in Joburg at the time, working as a journalist on The Mail & Guardian. It was a time of euphoria, but also so much ‘third-force’ state-sponsored violence, hurt, struggle, damage and confusion.
It is shocking to reflect on the fact that the genocide in Rwanda took place that very same April in 1994.
I’ve posted the Akhmatova poem here so as not to give the rest of the exhibition away, because it is not what you might expect. Completely eschewing images of deathly violence, Jaar invites is to think about – and feel – the genocide in new ways that have deep bearing on how conflict is mediated to (and by) us.
With hyper-weaponised Israel hammering Gaza and the US standing by, now is the time to see the exhibition. It closes on 23 May.