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Humanities on the rise

by Media Xpose

From the perspective of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the future of the Humanities shines bright with its soon to be opened Greatmore Arts and Humanities Hub in Woodstock, Cape Town.

Showing a deep commitment to the future of the Humanities to produce cutting edge research and new experiments in the arts, UWC has invested in refurbishing a derelict, former school building into an intellectual home for a new generation of Humanities scholars and artists.

Under apartheid, and as a historically black university, UWC had been denied access to offering formal arts education as well as institutional access to the city centre. The Greatmore building in Woodstock is situated on the former municipal boundary of what was once a designated ‘white’ group area, a space in the city that was blocked to the university and from where many of its students and their families had been forcibly removed.

Perhaps because, rather than despite the constraints of apartheid, UWC has over decades cultivated world-class research and ground-breaking scholarship in the Humanities and other domains. The Greatmore Hub is the next step in a future that has been long in the making; a visionary project that places the Humanities in the public domain through a research and art-making programme in sound, documentary cinema, and kinetic objects – enabling a deep exploration of art, society, technology, politics, and alternative traditions of intellectual thought.

A nexus for youth mobility

Greatmore Hub will be a nexus for youth mobility between the townships of the Cape Flats and the city as well as an educational space for collaborators across urban and rural lines.

This commitment to youth mobility is reflected in architects Ilze and Heinrich Wolff’s design. No longer will visitors enter the building through tight passages and gender segregated facilities but rather step into a light, covered courtyard as an open social space, a space of communing and of intellectual and artistic experimentation: the heart of the hub where students, scholars, artists, community partners, and international scholars all come together and learn from one another.

The road to Greatmore began at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), which houses the Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities, the only national flagship in the Humanities in South Africa. The CHR provides an arena for scholarly exchange, artistic creation, and public inquiry into African political subjectivity, art and society, and technology and the human.

The CHR hosts scholars and students from South African universities as well as public institutions and national and international research bodies in a collaborative initiative that is distinguishing itself in forging the next generation of Humanities scholars and arts practitioners.

These are scholars and artists in South Africa that are on a path to becoming experts within their fields of study as they pursue academic careers in the Humanities and Social Sciences. They are committed to the demands of building a post-apartheid South Africa, understanding the Humanities and Arts are critical to undo the inheritances of apartheid, even more than two decades after formal democracy has been won.

CHR Fellows know the future they conceive is always in process, always challenging, calling them to respond with careful thought and attention to a rapidly changing world. To accompany the recent announcements of the NIHSS Awards for 2022, Professor Sarah Mosoetsa (NIHSS CEO) reflected on the increasing polarization of society and the repercussions of, among other things, the pandemic.

“Fortunately, the task of the Humanities and Social Sciences is to colour in the spaces between extremes; to shade in the nuances and gradations missing from debates and dilemmas that are not nearly as clear-cut as they may be made out to be,” she said.

Community engagement

Future Humanities scholars accept this enormous responsibility and pursue first-rate research that includes community engagement. The potential of such collaborations has been seen in the remarkable success of CHR’s decade-long partnership with Handspring Puppet Company, CBO Net vir Pret, and the CHR’s resident puppetry company, and Ukwanda on the annual Barrydale Puppet Parade and Performance with giant puppets.

In working with the community of Barrydale, the CHR saw the immense importance of a community engagement on equal terms. Barrydale remained a town circumscribed by apartheid planning, and no one from the historically disadvantaged communities had been to university. Since the beginning of the Barrydale initiative, 66 youths from the area have entered university. Last year, the first of these students enrolled for a master’s degree at UWC.

The future of the Humanities depends on opening new paths. The CHR is committed to rethinking the future of the Humanities PHD in South Africa and is deeply engaged in creating a doctoral programme that allows the versatility and scope needed for the next generation to thrive.

Laboratory of Kinetic Objects

Greatmore will house a Laboratory of Kinetic Objects (LoKO), in partnership with Handspring Puppet Company; a documentary film training programme, with Emmy Award Winner François Verster and Khalid Shamis; a jazz, sound, and new media programme, with Reza Khota; an international research hub; a public lecture programme; and an exhibition space and arts incubator for its artists in residence programme, which has been established through funding support from the National Research Foundation and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

In a fitting nod to this union of intellectual and artistic pursuits, the first performance to take place at Greatmore in 2022 will be a ground-breaking puppetry production on the life of Charlotte Maxeke. CHR artists in residence and staff began work on the project last year, which was declared “The Year of Charlotte Maxeke.”

This provocative re-imagining of the life and world of Charlotte Maxeke is being created in collaboration with former CHR Next Generation researcher Dr Thozama April, who received the Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke Award for her research in documenting the life history of Maxeke.

Dr April’s work brings to light Maxeke’s international intellectual pursuits and her important influence on leading international thinkers and activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois. The CHR creative team has significantly chosen puppetry as a core artistic medium through which to explore significant elements of Charlotte Maxeke’s story, aspects which will help young people connect with her today, which might inform the way we think about her for the future. The future of the Humanities, we know, belongs to many generations.

For more information, visit www.chrflagship.uwc.ac.za

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