On 16 March 2023, the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted the launch of Attached to the Soil, an exhibition by Peter Glendinning.
The exhibition features a series of portraits of people in South Africa accompanied by interrogating narratives about the subject of the portrait, this land and its people. At its core, the exhibition demonstrates how, despite the opportunistic utterances of politicians, people in South Africa want to live together. Not only do we want to live out our potential, but we also want to see our neighbours flourish and thrive.
The project was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s words during his inauguration as President in 1990 when he said: “To my compatriots. I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous Jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the Mimosa trees of the Bushveld. Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal.”
In an introduction to the exhibition delivered via prepared video, esteemed Professor and Director of SOAS, Adam Habib, reflected on how “these photographs present the national psyche in a completely different way”. He described how the portraits and the stories in the project “suggest that South Africa comprises of people who want to belong, who desire unity, and want to live in peace with their neighbours – whatever their identity, cultural expressions, or historical trajectory”.
As part of the launch, participants from the exhibition, Binjun Hu, Blessing Xhaba, Bontle Tau, MJ Liu, and Quentin Mnisi, participated in a panel discussion reflecting on their contribution to the work.
Unpacking her contribution, Binjun shared her story as a Chinese person in South Africa and how the project allowed her to reflect on Chinese and Asian migration to South Africa. Binjun spoke about how early Chinese presence in South Africa came from indentured labourers brought to the country in the 17th century to work the mines.
“The past can really affect your dignity; knowing what has been done to you,” reflected Binjun, referring to her portrait in which she is standing in an old gravesite next to the headstones of her ancestors in South Africa. “When the ancestors are unsettled below the soil, we will all be unsettled above the soil,” shared Binjun.
Each panellist described the origins and intentions behind their contribution to the project. Each of them was approached by Peter Glendinning in one or another capacity and asked to consider a soil-related metaphor, elect a person in their lives whose story embodies their metaphor to photograph and write a caption that unpacks how the person photographed is connected to the soil-related metaphor.
Quentin Mnisi’s contribution centred around resilience, self-determination and the willpower necessary to thrive in this country. Quentin opened up about having failed Matric three times before reregistering and passing. His chosen subject is Convice Mongwana, who grew up in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. Convice desperately wanted to study at a university and become a pharmacist but was rejected by all the programmes he applied to. His application was successful at one university – but it accepted him for a diploma in electrical engineering, undoubtedly by mistake. Convice took this as an opportunity to demonstrate his ability and earned the diploma in electrical engineering. He is now pursuing a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the Tshwane University of Technology.
“The soil will continue to nurture a tree even after it is cut down. With the will to live, it can grow,” writes Quentin about Convice's and his own stories.
Attached to the Soil will be on show at the Nelson Mandela Foundation until August 2023. Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the new Red Bus stop at the Foundation and our new opening hours on a Saturday morning.