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MATTERS OF OBSESSION

First permanent exhibition dedicated solely to Archbishop Tutu to open in Cape Town

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Purple cassock, at the new exhibition titled 'Truth To Power: Desmond Tutu and the Churches in the Struggle Against Apartheid'. Photograph: David Ross

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s story is set to be told with unprecedented depth and detail at a new permanent exhibition opening at the Old Granary building, Cape Town, on 25 March 2022. The exhibition is not only a celebration of the Arch’s legacy but a source of inspiration for those who wish to emulate his values.

Nestled at the heart of Cape Town’s cultural heritage precinct, a stones-throw from the Castle of Good Hope and walking distance from such landmarks as the District Six Museum and Cape Town City Hall, is a new exhibition titled Truth To Power: Desmond Tutu and the Churches in the Struggle Against Apartheid

The exhibition will open at the Old Granary building on Harrington Street — home to the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Intellectual Property Trust (IP Trust) — on 25 March 2022. The building has a chequered past that reflects the periods of oppression and transformation that South Africa has undergone. Over the years, it has served as a customs house for imports and exports, as well as for the trade of slaves; a town granary; a magistrates’ court; a prison for women; and the Public Works Department. 

“[A] lot of things to do with the colonial history of the country happened in this building,” said Phumi Nhlapo, acting CEO of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. “The significance for us is, we’re trying to turn it into a place of hope, a place of healing, and really use it to teach the rest of South Africa and the world about the legacy of the Arch and what we can learn from how he lived his life.” 

The exhibition was curated by the foundation in partnership with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The foundation and the IP Trust provided materials related to Tutu from the archive they care for, while the museum lent its expertise in creating an exhibition space. 

The process of gathering the materials and planning the space began just over a year ago, while the actual installation of the displays started in August 2021. Upon its opening, the exhibition will be the first permanent exhibit dedicated solely to the Arch, according to Nhlapo. 

“We’ve basically negotiated licenses with all the contributors for a five-year period. After five years, then we will decide to continue, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a permanent exhibition,” she said. 

Telling the Arch’s story 

The exhibition is intended to tell Tutu’s story with unprecedented depth and detail. Through it, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation aims to teach people who the Arch was and what he stood for, according to Nhlapo. 

“[W]e don’t want this to be just a monument for the Arch in looking at the past, but we want to really inspire young people especially to learn about the values that the Arch lived by and to try and emulate that, and become the types of leaders that we need in the world today,” she said. 

The first room visitors encounter as they move from reception into the exhibition space is a ‘family room’, which the foundation is going to call Side by Side. It is a sincere homage to the relationship between Tutu and his wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu, and is filled with photographs from their many years together. 

The family room. Image: Tamsin Metelerkamp

“We wanted to make sure that the family welcomes you, you know. [T]he addition of the family room was very important to really show that, first and foremost, [Tutu] was a husband and a father — that Mama Leah was his anchor,” said Nhlapo.

From here, visitors step into the first of a series of rooms that make up the main exhibition space. In moving through the rooms, they move through six themes that map out the path of Tutu’s life in relation to the development and eventual liberation of South Africa.

“The history of South Africa and the history of the Arch very much [work] in parallel in the themes that we’ve got, and also the history of his influence outside of South Africa,” explained Nhlapo. “So, it was very much done in terms of the different periods in his life where he had to rise up because of circumstances that were happening in the country and the world.” 

The first of the themes, ‘Apartheid Education: The Most Evil Act of All’, explores how the apartheid-era policy of Bantu education changed the trajectory of Tutu’s life, causing him to resign from his post as a teacher in protest, and seek new purpose as a priest. 

Robe and mitre. Image: Tamsin Metelerkamp

The displays, coloured a deep purple reminiscent of the Arch’s iconic cassock, provide a wealth of information complemented by photographs and artefacts. Visitors can read the reference letter Father Trevor Huddleston wrote Tutu when he decided to become a priest, or Tutu’s handwritten notes on the death of Steve Biko, scrawled across the pages of a simple wire-bound notebook in 1977. 

The rooms of the exhibition are never silent. The rise and fall of music, as well as voices from the videos that accompany each theme, add another dimension to the multifaceted and multimedia experience. The videos were compiled by the Apartheid Museum to capture relevant historical events, according to Nhlapo. They use both footage from the apartheid era and commentary by experts and contemporaries of Tutu. 

The second theme, ‘The Struggle in the Church: Fighting a False Gospel’, explores the church as a site of contention between those who supported racial oppression and those who fought against it. It is in moving through these first two themes that people — and in particular the youth — might be struck by iterations of the Arch they are not familiar with. Not the chuckling old man with his gentle wisdom, but a sombre young gentleman speaking on inequality, a fiery preacher calling on his congregation to challenge apartheid. 

“I suppose… people know the Arch from one perspective, maybe they met him at a certain point in time in his life, but there’s a lot to learn,” said Nhlapo. She described the creation of the exhibition as a process of discovery, as there were many things Tutu did out in the world of which those in South Africa were not aware. 

“It may have started here, but he became very much a person of influence throughout the world,” she continued.

This is exemplified by the third theme of the exhibition, ‘Faith in Action: The Campaign for Sanctions’, where the Arch’s influence in calling for international sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid state becomes clear. Here, a bright red reflects the incendiary nature of this time period, detailing the frontline stance Tutu took against the forced removal of people of colour from areas designated for white settlement. 

Mandela room. Image: Tamsin Metelerkamp

In an adjoining room to this section of the exhibition, visitors can learn more about the relationship between Tutu and Nelson Mandela. They will come face-to-face with a pair of puppets, ‘Tata and Tutu’, from the satirical show ZANEWS, which ran between 2009 and 2017. The puppets, both works in caricature, are a contrast to the more sombre contents of the room. This is in keeping with the rest of the exhibition, where a blend of political satire and the Arch’s own humour maintains a presence. 

“The Arch was not a person who took himself very seriously, and we wanted to make sure that as heavy as the issues were that he had to deal with in his life, we don’t lose the fact that he actually was a very grounded person. I guess he had the kind of emotional intelligence that we all wish we had — that in the midst of all that, he still found time to love, tell a lot of jokes, sometimes maybe inappropriate jokes to just break the tension,” said Nhlapo. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela puppets. Image: Tamsin Metelerkamp

The next two themes of the exhibition are ‘Protest and Peace-Making: In the Streets and Stadiums’ and ‘Unfinished Business: Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation’. The first explores Tutu’s commitment to defying apartheid in all its manifestations, while the latter is focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — both its achievements and unfinished business. 

A wall in the TRC-themed room is filled with the names of those who were impacted by apartheid. Accompanied by a video showing the heart-rending accounts of individuals who testified before the commission, it serves as both a monument and a reminder to never allow such injustices to be repeated. 

“The names are taken from the seventh volume of the TRC report, and there’s more than 19,000 names on the wall,” explained Nhlapo. “It’s a huge moment in the exhibition, and when you take somebody through whose name is on there, they’re looking for the name… Some of us will look at it as a historical thing, but [for] other people, it’s personal.” 

The wall of names. Image: Tamsin Metelerkamp

The exhibition is intended to inspire those who move through it, with the final room themed ‘TU+TU = Freedom’. This theme serves to remind visitors that Tutu’s activism did not come to an end when South Africa gained democracy, but rather, continued to be a force for justice throughout the world, according to the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. 

From 25 March, the exhibition will be open to the public from Monday to Friday between 09:30 and 15:30, according to Nhlapo. The entire space takes at least an hour to work through and is wheelchair accessible. 

For now, tours are self-guided and best suited to high school learners and adults. However, the foundation has plans to make the space more engaging for younger children through the development of educational programmes. 

Nhlapo believes that by being creative in terms of their programming and focusing on the Arch’s values, rather than heavy historical events, they can create something that young children can relate to. 

“You can teach values to young kids. People don’t become great leaders just by learning books and that, they learn how to be. And if we make a contribution in that way, I’ll be very happy that we’ve really made a difference,” she said. 

All visitors, young and old, can learn from Tutu’s willingness to take a stand on issues, including those that were controversial, according to Nhlapo. She referenced the Arch’s willingness to speak out about issues around gender and sexual orientation, conflicts around the world and climate change. 

“Those issues have not gone away, will not go away, and we need other voices to rise up and continue. Instead of just looking at, ‘Wow, how great [he was]’ and that he stood for all these things, let’s be encouraged by that, let’s be inspired to also stand up for what we believe in.” DM/ ML/ MC

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