Judith Mason (1936-2016)
The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (triptych) (1998)
Mixed media/ Oil on canvas 1902 x 1600 mm
Donated by Nancy Gordon, Justice Albie Sachs and the artist
The “Blue Dress” as it is colloquially known, is perhaps the signature piece of the collection. It illustrates the power of the visual in portraying the stories of those who may otherwise remain voiceless. The triptych was inspired by the execution of two liberation movement cadres by the security police – Phila Ndwandwe and Harald Sefola, whose deaths during the struggle were described at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by their killers.
Phila Ndwandwe was shot by the security police after being kept naked for weeks in an attempt to make her inform on her comrades. She preserved her dignity by making panties out of a blue plastic bag. This garment was found wrapped around her pelvis when she was exhumed by the TRC. One if the men involved in her killing said: “she simply would not talk… God she was brave.”
Harald Sefola was electrocuted with two comrades in a field outside Witbank. While waiting to die he requested permission to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, now the National Anthem of South Africa. His killer said: “he was a very brave man who believed strongly in what he was doing.”
When Judith Mason heard Phila’s story, she collected discarded blue plastic bags and sewed them into a dress. On the skirt of the dress she wrote the following poem:
“Sister, a plastic bag may not be the whole armour of God, but you were wrestling with flesh and blood, and against powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in sordid places. Your weapons were your silence and a piece of rubbish. Finding that bag and wearing it until you were disinterred is such a frugal, common-sensical, house-wifely thing to do, an ordinary act… At some level you shamed your capturers, and they did not compound their abuse of you by stripping you a second time. Yet they killed you. We only know your story because a sniggering man remembered how brave you were. Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn bushes. This dress is made from some of them. Hamba kahle. Umkhonto.”
Unstitching the Blue Dress–The Debate
As a law clerk assigned to the Constitutional Court, Douglas Ainslie was captivated by the story of Phila Ndwandwe, the subject of Mason’s sensitive memorial to the executed ANC combatant. This fascination set Ainslie on a path to uncover the full story of Phila Ndwandwe. Ainslie’s written piece, Art the TRC & the ‘Truth’: Unstitching the ‘Blue dress’ explores the validity and basis of some of the sentiments expressed by the artwork and juxtaposes them with findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and further investigative research.
Unstitching the Blue Dress, a Response, written by Mason, addresses Ainslie’s article and shares her highly personal response, and the artistic and creative journey which has culminated in the artwork. Judith dispels some of the myths and inaccuracies present in the current interpretations of the artwork, and she informs the reader of her personal views, in light of the assertions found in Douglas Ainslie’s article.
The robust dialogue that ensues between the artist and the law clerk makes for fascinating reading and stimulates a discussion of the role of the artist as a creative interpreter of events in relation to factually based documented findings.
Download both documents here:
Vorster, S., 2018. Storytelling and fraught histories: Phila Ndwandwe’s Blue Dress. Safundi, 19(2), pp.164-189.