Mandela and the movement that rocked the world

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Fight for freedom showcased through dramatic visuals, digital technology

Visitors to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) can experience the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, take a stand in front of a giant armoured vehicle, make a virtual protest poster on a digital light table, or enter a secret apartment for freedom fighters forced underground.

A major new exhibition called Mandela: Struggle for Freedom officially opens at a free public event tonight. A rich sensory experience of imagery, soundscape, digital media and objects is used to explore the earthshaking fight for justice and human dignity in South Africa – and its relevance to issues of today. Among its many dramatic visual features and original artifacts, the exhibition replicates Mandela's eight‐foot by seven‐foot prison cell. When entered, the cell becomes a digital theatre whose walls tell a story of repression and resilience. Other exhibition highlights are described in the attached backgrounder.

Mandela's unbreakable will inspired people around the globe to mobilize for human rights. Born 100 years ago next month (on July 18), he was one of the most famous human rights defenders of the 20th century and the face of a movement against racial injustice that rocked the world. Mandela is one of only six people to be made honorary Canadian citizens. He travelled to Canada a few months after his historic 1990 release from prison to thank its leaders and citizens for their support.

"Nelson Mandela was passionate about education as the path forward to a better world," said CMHR president and CEO John Young. "Yet many young people have never heard of apartheid, while others are unfamiliar with the movement behind Mandela that spread to Canada and around the world. Our new travelling exhibition shares this important piece of global human rights history, so its lessons can reverberate with a new generation."

The new exhibition was developed by the CMHR in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose founder and director, Christopher Till, has travelled to Winnipeg for the opening and will speak at a free, public event tonight at the CMHR.

"Nelson Mandela's legacy and dedication to the achievement of freedom for the oppressed South African peoples has resonance for the world," said Till. "His life is an example for the ongoing struggle against abuses of human rights that prevail in many parts of the world. This new exhibition not only provides insight into the man who dedicated his life to this cause, but can serve as a rallying cry."

Also speaking at tonight's event is Dr. Dolana Mogadime, an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, whose mother's story as a South African‐Canadian anti‐apartheid activist is presented in the exhibition via excerpts from a video‐recorded oral history interview. Mogadime's great‐grandfather was South African political leader Henry Selby Msimang, a founding member of the South African Native National Congress, which became the African National Congress.

Tonight's event is open to all, beginning at 7 p.m. in Bonnie & John Buhler Hall at the CMHR. In addition to remarks by Young, Till and Mogadime, lead curator Isabelle Masson will explain the exhibition and how it came together. The evening ends with a performance by Winnipeg's African‐Canada dance company, NAfro Dance, which choreographed a special tribute to Mandela, and live artistic creation by Winnipeg artist Kal Barteski.

The Museum is grateful to The Asper Foundation, TD Bank Group and Air Canada for supporting this exhibition. The CMHR thanks the many lenders whose loans bring this important story to life, including Robben Island Museum and political cartoonist Zapiro. The exhibition runs in the CMHR's state‐of‐the‐art Level 1 Gallery until January 6, 2019.

High resolution photographs available upon request.


Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is a new travelling exhibition developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. Its runs from June 8, 2018 to January 6, 2019 at the CMHR. Among its highlights:

  • Five zones – Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization and Freedom – house interactive exhibits, artifacts and objects, oral histories, video and art. Each zone corresponds to a different colour of the South African flag, adopted with the first democratic elections of 1994 to symbolize unity. Visitors start with the stark black‐and‐white of apartheid oppression and end in the full living colour of freedom.
  • A five‐metre‐high "wall of laws" is covered with signs and laws, based solely on skin colour, that dictated how people had to live their lives, including where they could go and what they could do under South Africa's former system of apartheid. Apartheid was used as a system of racial segregation and labour exploitation, imposing control on all aspects of life – as evidenced by the number and diversity of laws. A replica bench at the exhibition's entrance sets the tone by inviting "Europeans only" to sit.

    CMHR – Jessica Sigurdson

  • The scene of young Mandela's famous first TV interview in 1961 in a clandestine apartment location is recreated in front of the actual film footage (the Widlake interview). At this time, freedom fighters are moving underground. A "covert" area in this gallery zone features hidden objects, peekholes and coded phone messages.
  • A tiny prison cell with rear‐projection scrim walls comes alive with silhouettes of Mandela moving about in his daily routine, then relays a story of continued resistance in the face of repression. Visitors are exposed to the dehumanizing conditions of Robben Island, the tools of hard labour, the censored letters, the meagre contents of the cell, and a little‐known plot to escape.
  • Tanks against trash‐can lids: Music, rhythmic toyi‐toyi dancing, and rich "schwe‐schwe" fabrics enliven the story of action and uprising. A massive, tank‐like truck emerges from one wall, where visitors can grab a trash‐can lid as their only protection, like students in the Soweto uprising.
  • Original artifacts include a battered ballot box used in the country's first democratic elections in 1994 when Mandela became president; a letter in Mandela's own hand, sent from prison to a leader of anti‐apartheid mobilization; a notepad Mandela used during negotiations for democracy; and a message Mandela wrote in the Canadian Senate during a visit shortly after his release from prison in 1990.

    CMHR – Jessica Sigurdson

  • In‐gallery activities include a virtual poster‐making station on a digital touchscreen table, with the ability to project your poster among others displayed in the exhibit (this can also be done online). Poster‐making was a major part of the South African community resistance. People with few resources would gather to make inspiring posters that called people to action and solidarity in the struggle. Hundreds of examples still exist.
  • In the Museum's Boutique, Mandela‐themed merchandise includes colourful pillows made from bolts of South African "schwe‐schwe" fabric by Winnipeg's One Nation Exchange – a group of crafters who are refugees, immigrants and Indigenous Peoples. They come together to strengthen each other, share their stories and create beauty for others.

    CMHR – Aaron Cohen

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

– Nelson Mandela, 1964

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