Re-Framing SS Mendi: Curating and Commemorating a ‘Missing’ Memory in South Africa

The sinking of the SSMendiin 1917 remains one of South Africa’s greatest war disasters and one of the worst maritime losses during the First World War. Yet the memory of the more than 600 black South African troops who died en route to Europe to fight a ‘white man’s war’ was in the racially segregated South Africa soon faded from public memory. 100 years later, in the democratic republic of South Africa which is still battling the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, it has become a national top-priority to commemorate the sinking of the SS Mendi.

In 2017, the University of Cape Town is both a site for violent student demonstrations And host for the centenary commemoration exhibition Abantu beMendi which pays tribute to the men who perished with the Mendi but who were never acknowledged or awarded for their service to the war effort. Comprising a plurality of artworks and documentation, Abantu beMendi is a space where a diverse curatorial committee in collaboration with artists and stakeholders negotiate what the memory of the Mendi is today, and how to decolonise curation and representation.  How do you visually and materially reconstruct a memory from a history that was ‘forgotten’? Why, after 100 years of official neglect despite family and community efforts to keep the memory alive, has Mendibecome a national priority today? Whose memory is commemorated?

Susanne Holm is a photographer and visual researcher who strives to combine art and academia with the aim to enhance the applicability of both. Following this project she graduated cum laude with a Master of Science from Leiden University, specialising in Visual Ethnography. This study was carried out in collaboration with the Mendi Centenary Project curatorial committee, Centre for African Studies at University of Cape Town and a multitude of people effected by the Mendi tragedy. 

In this context, as associate researcher of Bloco 4 foundation, we want to place our congratulations on the book and, above all, on the challenge it imposes on us in studies about memory and celebrations.

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