Artist carves out 118 ‘graves’ to remind us how anti-apartheid activists were killed

By Nabeelah Shaikh

Twenty-eight years into democracy, one man’s quest for justice for victims of apartheid crimes, is coming alive through his art that signifies death by torture.

Acclaimed artist and activist Haroon Gunn-Salie is behind an eye-catching installation of 118 graves created on the unmarked site near the historic gallows at the Castle of Good Hope in Central Cape Town.

Named Crying For Justice, it is made up of the 118 graves excavated into the landscape, symbolising the 117 known activists killed in detention by apartheid security forces.

“When viewed from the rampart elevation of the Castle walls, the installation spells the word JUSTICE as a reverberating call to continue the fight for truth, justice and accountability in post-apartheid South Africa, and for the prosecution of those responsible for these politically-motivated crimes against humanity,” said Gunn-Salie.

The last grave is meant to acknowledge other activists who died killed in detention that remains unaccounted for.

Gunn-Salie conceptualised the idea back in 2019.

“I had been doing a project since 2013, the first piece of it was published in 2014. It was a long form collaboration with Imam Haron’s family. It was called Amongst Men,” said Gunn-Salie.

That installation conceptually recreated Imam Haron’s funeral which was attended by over 40 000 mourners after he was murdered by apartheid police in 1969 – by suspending a series of over 400 individually cast kufiya.

It was accompanied by a haunting sound element: a recording of a poem written at the time of the Imam’s untimely death by James Matthews and read by him in old age.

“After this, I continued collaborations with Imam Haron’s family. I was invited as one of the people that were responsible for organising the memorialisation in the 50th year of his passing in 2019. That is when he came up with the idea to create a sculptural graveyard of 118 unmarked graves,” said Gunn-Salie.

Having been named after Imam Haron, Gunn-Salie says there were many things he pondered about.

“It has always been a question for me, what does it mean to be named after such a great man, such a great leader, after an Imam? This question of needing to do some soul searching was always there for me. And when we created the project, it was a way to not only memorialise Imam Haron, but also to continue the quest for justice,” said Gunn-Salie.

Freedom Fighters

Both of his parents were freedom fighters, and this too, had a huge impact on his work over the years. He says the sculptural graveyard highlights the need to dig up the past to reveal the truth behind brutal apartheid killings.

“My mom Shirley Gunn was framed and captured. Both she and I as a baby were in prison together, and it’s been a very strong influence on my life. My name is on the TRC list of victims of gross human rights violations and torture. I feel like I have to do this kind of work because of what we have been through,” said Gunn-Salie.

There are 118 graves in the installation, but there were 117 people who were killed.

“We don’t believe that this is the truth. We believe others were killed as well, so that extra grave is to symbolise that. But the other reason that the 118th grave is there, is to symbolize those people who were in detention, who were tortured by security police and forever lived with the markers of that experience. My mom being one of them,” said Gunn-Salie.

He recalls how during the time in which his mother was in prison, there was a moment that he was placed in solitary confinement.

“They removed me from her. I kind of did a hunger strike. I refused to eat, to take milk as a baby. I was there in the company of strange people, the company of police and I refused to take anything from them. They played tapes of me crying to my mom, during her interrogation to make her feel like she was a terrible mom. They threatened her and said that if she gave them information, they would return me to her,” said Gunn-Salie.

He says the idea of crying for justice also stems from this.

“There’s the literal crying that occurred, where I was used as a tool of gross human rights abuse and torture and where I was directly a victim of that torture,” he said.

As a result of this experience, he believes he has to use the tools that he has at his disposal.

“I feel like I have to use this ammunition to make sure that the struggle continues. It’s not over… we haven’t got justice for victims of the past. We live in a flawed democracy in that regard and it’s my role essentially to insist, in these very public ways, that we need to continue the struggle and we can’t accept the lies of the past,” said Gunn-Salie.

He says the installation is intended to remain in the landscape until the truth is revealed.

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