Art History professor leads study trip to South Africa

In summer 2018, LaNitra Berger, an art historian who serves on the faculty and staff of the Honors College, orchestrated an unusual intense and varied trip for several Mason undergraduates to South Africa. The theme of the three-week program was Monuments, Museums and Memory in South Africa, and the organizing principle was exposure to a diversity of viewpoints on the nation’s past and future.

The participants themselves were distinctive. Three were Honors students, the fourth a student who had worked with Professor Berger in an African art course. Two were African American, three were STEM majors, one an athlete – all categories underrepresented in study abroad. Also involved was Garey Davis, a staff member from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education who has worked on HIV/AIDs issues in South Africa, and Professor Berger’s two young sons.

The group spent two weeks in Cape Town, one in Johannesburg. They met early on with Chumani Maxwele, who organized the Rhodes Must Fall movement that ultimately won the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue; and they also exchanged with a former Robben Island prison guard. They interacted with a variety of groups, blacks, coloured, Muslims, and whites, including a paired tour with some high school students who were not as concerned with the monuments as the group expected. A visit to Robben Island on July 4 was a high point, as was a meeting with a number of young black artists who brought critical perspectives not only on the colonial past and south African slavery, but on Nelson Mandela as well. A visit to the Irma Stern museum (the artist whom Prof. Berger has studied) brought some more conservative white views, but other white perspectives were encountered as well.

The days in Joburg continued the theme of multiple perspectives, again with some younger black artists but also an older journalist more conventionally respectful of Mandela. The group visited Soweto and the Mandela house on Mandela’s birthday.

The participants are even now curating some of the photographs they took on the trip, one of the formal assignments for the project. Prof. Berger hopes to organize a similar venture this coming summer, though with Durban as the focus but with renewed opportunities for interactions with younger artists.

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