An Enduring Icon: Celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela

An interview with Sarah Hougan, the curator of Mandela: the official exhibition currently taking place in Bikini Berlin

October 24th, 2019
Kristin Leckström, Giulia Russo Wälti, Ismini Venetatou, News from Berlin
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On October 24th, Berlin Global had the opportunity to visit Mandela: The official exhibition, currently hosted at Bikini Berlin. This visit also included an interview with Sarah Hougan, the curator of the exhibition.

The interactive exhibition guides the visitor through the life of one of the world’s most famous freedom fighters. The exhibition features unseen films, photos and historical artefacts and personal effects on loan from the Mandela family and museums. Starting with Mandela’s childhood, the visitor is offered an insight into events and people that shaped his life. The exhibition will stay in Berlin until March, 15th 2020.

What kind of aim did you have in mind during the planning phase of the exhibition?

Well, we really wanted to inspire people to continue with Mandela’s legacy. That was the goal to realize that you can go to the exhibition and be inspired to change the world in whatever way you see fit. And so, it is fighting for social justice, fighting against wrongs and standing up for people. And I personally find the exhibition incredibly interesting and moving in the way Nelson Mandela was good at working with people who were different from him, worked with people who kept him in jail for multiple years. He turned around and worked with De Klerk, as his vice president. It is things like that we need to see today, and I find that really inspiring. All of those things and to carry on his legacy was the goal.

What is your personal connection to the issues central to this exhibition? For example, the main issues of social inequality, racism, and discrimination especially apparent during the apartheid period in South Africa.

So, I grew up in Georgia in the south part of the United States which is known for discrimination. I certainly grew up in an area where they were trying to change things but there was still a lot that needed to happen, and it continues to need to happen. The United States still battle with a lot of issues of racism which we see all the time, there was a big thing earlier this year in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is just a little bit north of where I grew up. So, it is something that I grew up with, though not as obviously extreme as the apartheid but I could relate to some extent. Some of the things that I feel we saw in apartheid definitely were a part of the culture in Georgia. Therefore, it is something that I related to because of where I grew up.

Do you get any help from the South African Embassy in Berlin? Do you get sponsored?

We didn’t work with the South African Embassy in Berlin specifically. We definitely worked with a lot of people in South Africa. I personally traveled to South Africa twice and that with my colleagues working on the organization of the exhibition. In fact, most of our helpers are from South Africa. There may be other immediate workers with the South African Embassy in Berlin through the promotion of the exhibition, but not in terms of developing the exhibition.

We organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Royal House of Mandela, managed by Nelson Mandela’s grandson. He restored the title of the Royal House and gave it back to Mandela’s family after the loss of the title when Nelson Mandela was at a young age.

What do you hope this exhibition will bring to the audience attending it in Berlin?

We want people to talk, much as the goal of the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy. We want people to talk about all sort of social related issues; social justice, racism and how they are feeling it personally. We want to create dialogue. Hopefully, the dialogue will be about today’s issues, not about the pasts.

Nelson Mandela is an enduring icon. In your opinion, what makes this exhibition special in relation to common knowledge about his life?

I think the most interesting area is the part in the beginning, of his early years, that has never been done before. We worked with lots of people from South Africa and there have been lots of exhibitions about him, but this is one different, mostly because it has that early year piece. Speaking with people in Mphakanyiwa is fascinating and they are so wonderful and warm, but it is so in the middle of nowhere, still, it is amazing to think that is where he came from. It is all about learning how he was raised to be a politician and how it was always in his blood. He lived with the region king, who he would watch as people came to try to resolve disputes, and they would all come to the region king, and his job was to listen first and then to mediate and try to resolve disputes. So Nelson Mandela grew up watching that and that is what he ended up doing later in life. That piece to me is totally new and fascinating. There is so much in there about different cultures that I was not aware of and then also the blending, again, the fact that the people of Mphakanyiwa fought for the British. So it is the blending there. They made sure Mandela was educated and it is these sort of things that I find very interesting.

As the curator of the exhibition, how important are cultural gains of this kind of exhibitions that connect culture to politics and history?

I think it is extremely important. I think seeing where people are from and seeing how people are similar to you and also different from you is really important. It allows us to respect where everybody comes from. When we see these great leaders that we think we know, Nelson Mandela for example, everybody thought of him as a grandfather, but to see that there are things that I recognize in my life and also there are things that are very different. Then you can look at other people and see the similarities and the differences and I think that is really important, to be able to talk about those things and see how our backgrounds are different but here is how we are the same, here is how we can relate and here is what I want to learn from you and your culture. I think that is incredibly important and that dialogue helps us. Appreciating everybody’s culture and where they are from and learning about it.

Final question. What is the future of Mandela: The Official Exhibition?

I personally hope to bring it to the U.S. We think that we will have a number of people come to see it in Berlin, and personally I hope it comes to the U.S. before our next election. We really need it, because it talks about what makes a leader and what you want in a leader, so it is a way of having a political exhibition without talking about the issues, but more about leadership and who you want to lead. They are also looking for other places in Europe. The first exhibition was in London, the second is this one in Berlin. The reason of the exhibition starting in London is because most of the creative team was in London, it was the home of the ANC during exile, and that is why there is a lot of support in London. The promoters that are behind it in Berlin came to London and they wanted to bring it in Berlin. They felt that it was a good fit for Berlin and they were passionate about the project. I think most people who see it understand how important this project is and just get behind if they can.

The interview, as well as the exhibition, highlight how the issues Mandela worked for during his lifetime are still relevant today. Rich exhibits, such as personal items, reveal a deeper story behind the headlines and bring visitors closer to the man behind the myth. Mandela's actions throughout his life serve as a model for future generations because important lessons can be learned from his history.  In fact, the visitor of the exhibition is lead to question about the problems that South African society has experienced during the apartheid period, and to compare it to the social inequalities that still characterize a too large part of the world's population.


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