District Six, a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa, is the primary point of reference for the atrocities of forced removals under the apartheid state. The neighbourhood comprised a diverse group of residents, some of whom were isiXhosa speakers from the Eastern Cape, descendants of freed slaves (racialised by the apartheid state as ‘Malay’ or ‘Coloured’), and owing to District Six’s close proximity to the docks, immigrants from Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Caribbean (Rassool, 2006: 286).
The apartheid state declared District Six a ‘White Only’ area in 1966, under the Group Areas Act of 1950. Forced removal of residents commenced in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the demolition of residential buildings. By the late 1980s, the physical infrastructure of District Six was largely destroyed. District Six Museum, established in 1994, has dedicated its existence to the memory of District Six through the stories and experiences of its residents. In this paper I discuss the District Six Museum’s distinctive participatory culture as central to its curatorial methodology, with a particular emphasis on the use and adaptation of art practices in the curatorial process.
In an interview with Tina Smith, Head of Exhibitions at the District Six Museum, she described the crucial role of artists in the development of the museum’s first exhibitions ‘Streets: Retracing District Six’ (1994), and ‘Digging Deeper’ (1999). Peggy Delport, an artist and former University of Cape Town lecturer, drove the curatorial process towards creating an ‘open’ approach that allowed for many perspectives, and resisted “a definitive history of District Six” (Smith, 2017).
The museum became a place for former residents to gather, and to begin to process their experiences of forced removals, the loss of home, and community. Shortly after the museum’s establishment, Smith began working with former residents in art workshops that facilitated the former residents’ need to communicate their stories. This work recently culminated in the project District Six Huiskombuis: Food and Memory Cookbook (‘Home Kitchen’ in Afrikaans), which became commercially available in 2017.
Huis Kombuis is a personalised history of District Six through former residents’ inherited recipes. In the book former residents present recipes, accompanied by personal narratives of home life in District Six, and hand-embroidered tapestries illustrating the meals. The value of daily practices such as cooking and sharing a meal with family, friends, and neighbours, and is central to the project.
In my paper I explore the complexity of presenting a myriad of stories and perspectives, through the collaborative creative projects undertaken by the District Six Museum. In addition, I discuss the museum’s decisively inclusive curatorial methodology, as it is informed by art-practices, and the commitment to memory in “making the intangible tangible” (Smith, 2017).
Rassool, C. (2006). Community Museums, Memory Politics, and Social Transformation in South Africa: Histories, Possibilities, and Limits. In Museum Frictions: Public Cultures / Global Transformations. Edited by Karp I. et al. Durham: Duke University Press. 286 – 321
Smith, T. (2017, 23 March). Interview with Tina Smith. Homecoming Centre, Cape Town.