MSU Professor Creates Body of Work to be Exhibited Throughout South Africa

For seven months in 2019, Peter Glendinning, Professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design, traveled throughout South Africa to each of its nine provinces where he created a body of work inspired by the words of Nelson Mandela in collaboration with 48 South African university students and portrait subjects.

That body of work, titled Attached to the Soil, will now be displayed in art galleries across South Africa, including Durban University of Technology, Nelson Mandela University, North-West University, Stellenbosch University, University of the Free State, and University of Pretoria. In addition to the exhibit, Glendinning will be a visiting artist for a week at each of these institutions, serving as a Fulbright Program Specialist coordinated by the School of the Arts at the University of Pretoria. 

Professor Peter Glendinning (left) with a South African youth collaborator, Thapelo Modibane (center), photographing one of the Attached to the Soil subjects, Nkele Johanna Baloyi (right).

Glendinning’s 2019 trip to South Africa was as a Fulbright Scholar hosted by Tshwane University of Technology and Nelson Mandela University. The year marked the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president and 25 years since the end of apartheid.

In his inaugural address on May 10, 1994, Mandela addressed the significance of each individual citizen and their unity with each other in a metaphor related to the soil, stating: “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.”

One of the photos taken by Professor Peter Glendinning that appear in the Attached to the Soil exhibit. This photo is of Dumza Maswana, who left home at the age of 13 and stayed for a year in an abandoned structure and was fed in exchange for his singing and doing dishes in a local shabeen. He said the music brought healing to him and kept him dreaming. He now shares traditions in song that join people of many cultures in unity.

These words of hope, unity, and reconciliation served as the lens through which the Attached to the Soil exhibit was formed. As Glendinning traveled throughout South Africa, he collaborated with “Mandela Babies,” young people raised in freedom after 1994, who proposed their own contemporary soil-related metaphors reflecting their individual realities as South Africans. 

“Those metaphors reflect their aspirations, as Mandela did his, now in the context of a 25-year-old nation,” Glendinning said. “The youth who chose to step forward to collaborate realized that just as their daily lives were defined in some ways by the metaphors of South Africans in the past and present, 25 years hence the youth of that era will look to them, the youth of today, and ask, ‘what was your metaphor, and how is my life and our country the better for it?’”

One of the photos taken by Professor Peter Glendinning that appear in the Attached to the Soil exhibit. This one is of Zandisile Gunaha, who, along with his son, still occupy their family’s ancestral lands in the remote Eastern Cape village of Xabyoku. They are the last of numerous members of their extended family who still occupy the ancestral lands.

The resulting series of 50 photographic portraits, youth metaphors, and oral history-based stories comprise the Attached to the Soil exhibit. The portraits, featuring South Africans of all ages and social backgrounds, were created in locations related to each subject’s story. A selection of works can be found at Peter Glendinning’s website

In his Foreward to the exhibit catalogue, Professor Adam Habib, Director of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, wrote that the project “…tells the stories of these individuals, capturing their hopes, fears, aspirations, and disappointments. It speaks of a people who are distinguished by their diversity, emanating as they do from a variety of racial, cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. All have been marked by the tragic history of racialised exploitation in this land. But all demonstrate in their activities, ambitions, and voice how this tragedy did not scar their souls.”

Peter Glendinning, Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at MSU

Attached to the Soil Exhibition Schedule

The Attached to the Soil exhibit will be displayed at the following institutions this summer:

  • University of Pretoria: July 26 – August 26
  • University of the Free State: Aug. 10 – Sept. 9
  • North-West University: Aug. 11 – Sept. 16
  • Nelson Mandela University: August 15 – September 9
  • Durban University of Technology: Aug. 16 – Sept. 16
  • Stellenbosch University Museum: Aug. 22 – Sept. 18

Written by Kim Popiolek