/ 24 March 2024

Founders of the Constitution look back at us

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Navan Chetty did not always feel comfortable when he worked on the portraits of the 16 prominent South Africans who were largely responsible for facilitating and drafting the Freedom Charter back in 1955. 

“It became a form of self-reckoning, and comparing myself to them, I fell short,” the almost 60-year-old artist said in an interview this week about his exhibition at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. “It prompted me to show more compassion, like these brave and resilient people, and to keep their vision alive.”

The charter is — per Chetty’s curatorial statement — a “groundbreaking document”, which nearly seven decades ago “delineated the collective vision, hopes and aspirations of the South African populace for their future democracy”. 

An important document in the struggle against apartheid, it subsequently served as the cornerstone for the development of the Constitution.

The 16, from diverse racial, political and religious backgrounds, included Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Ruth First, Yusuf Dadoo and Helen Joseph. 

“I sourced photographs of them that moved me and I tried to translate that into something monumental to honour and acknowledge these great leaders.”

The Freedom Charter has always had a presence in his life.

“In my youth, I was inspired by leaders of my time of the National Indian Congress in Chatsworth [in Durban],” Chetty said. “Later on, listening to UDF [United Democratic Front] leaders like Terror Lekota and Allan Boesak, the Freedom Charter came up a lot. 

“I was taken by how it came about — in a democratic way, people from all corners of the country contributed and was collated into an important document.”

What do the portraits tell us today? 

“As an artist, I don’t want to preach. But, if you look carefully, these pictures don’t depict those leaders as heroic — I tried to get a discomfort and unease across in the way I placed them uncomfortably in the frames, as if they are looking on at us, where we are now.”

The Freedom Charter Portraits exhibition runs until 30 April.