RE-FRAMING SS MENDI – New book at the SA Naval Museum

Commander Leon Steyn, Curator SA Naval Museum

“We are all in a state of trying to remember… If the body heals, but the spirit doesn’t, you’ve got a problem… And when it comes to inter-generational traumas that involve loss of identity and memory, it is only art that can help us to excavate lost aspects of history and go beyond the literal, beyond facts. Those men that were swallowed, we do not remember their names. Like it or not, we remember ‘Mendi’ in the singular. They have become Mendi. So too, Mendi is becoming us. We are Mendi – we are the commemoration of that memory.” – Mandla Mbothwe, artist (Holm, 2017)

These powerful and true words encapsulate the “effort of memory”, now one-hundred and two years after the sinking of the SS Mendi.  While 2017 was indeed an important year of commemoration; in which the South African Navy played a significant part; it remains equally important to continue and in some cases re-awaken the remembrance of the SS Mendi.  The 21st of February; Mendi Day; now known as Armed Forces Day, annually serves as a corporate reminder to remember.  This year’s event will be held in Cape Town from the 16th to the 21st of February this year and again hosted by the South African Navy.

A myriad of new books; dealing with the exploits of the SA Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) during the First World War (1914-1918) and the tragedy of SS Mendi; surfaced during 2017, emphasizing the renewed consciousness on the topic. Against the earlier seminal work of Norman Clothier’s Black Valour (1987) and the academic standards of Albert Grundlingh’s Fighting Their Own War (1987) and War and Society (2014), a number of other books were published in 2017 and included; Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo, Troopship Mendi; the Black Titanic by Nick Ward, We Die Like Brothers – the Sinking of the SS Mendi by John Gribble and Nick Scott, Men of the Mendi – South Africa’s Forgotten Heroes of World War I by Brenda Shepherd and Black Sacrifice – the Sinking of the SS Mendi by Dr Sandi Baai.

Re-Framing SS Mendi – Curating and Commemorating a ‘Missing’ Memory in South Africa by Swedish photographer and visual researcher Susanne Holm, however strikes a different chord.  Holm’s work is a rich and meaningful visual ethnography that investigates Mendi “behind the scenes” so to speak.  Ethnography is the scientific description of people and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.  Mainly through her photography; but definitely not limited to it; Holm examines the dilemma of “how to visually  and materially reconstruct a memory from a history that was largely ‘forgotten'”.  Re-framing SS Mendi is the culmination of  Holm’s Masters studies in Visual Ethnography at Leiden University in the Netherlands that saw her travel to Cape Town in the Mendi centenary year.  Collaborating with the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town she joined the team there to curate and document the art exhibition Abantu beMendi  that opened to critical acclaim at the Centre for African Studies gallery at UCT in February 2017.

Re-framing SS Mendi is a glossy A3 landscape-sized book of 121 pages that makes a constant passage between the past and the present.  The story of the SS Mendi and the men of the SANLC are recounted and well supported by lesser known images from the Tim Couzens/Fred Cornell collection, that were part of the display at the UCT’s  Abantu beMendi exhibition.  Holm also actively documented the curatorial process of the design and construction of Abantu beMendi  and in itself her observations, both through the lens and in text, provides much needed curatorial exposé to museologist and museum artists alike.  What is perhaps most striking about the book is the way certain critical legacies that pertained to Mendi (1917-1919) are juxtaposed to the legacies of today (2017-2019), both artistically and in the narrative.  This is vividly illustrated throughout the book, but especially so in a poignant image of the SA Naval Museum and the frigate SAS Mendi on page 14 of the book.

The book was reprinted for the SA Naval Museum in January 2019 and the author traveled to Simon’s Town to personally sign a number of copies for the museum.  A limited number of signed copies are available at the museum at R290.00.  The author can be contacted through