Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) have announced their Kambarang/Birak season program, led by Naarm (Melbourne)-based artist Roberta Joy Rich’s major solo exhibition, The Purple Shall Govern, from 3 November to 31 December 2023.
Reflecting on the resilience of Bla(c)k people during Apartheid-era South Africa, alongside those living on the unceded sovereign lands of Australia, Rich presents a series of installations, video and sound works and archival objects that reframe history and her own family narratives to explore how the past informs our experiences of public spaces – both then and now.
From 1948 to 1994 in South Africa, Apartheid institutionalised the active segregation of Black peoples who were forced to live separately from the White minority, while restricting their political rights and freedom.
Rich was particularly motivated by Cape Town’s transformative 1989 anti-Apartheid Purple Rain Protest – held four days before South Africa’s racially segregated parliament elections. In what would become an iconic image, a lone protester commandeered police cannons filled with purple dye. Intended to mark the protestors purple and render them easy targets, he instead unleashed the dye onto buildings and crowds, staining the people and streets purple.
An extraordinary and powerful moment that transpired in public space, the exhibition borrows its title from a slogan that appeared graffitied across Cape Town buildings the following day – and for decades to come – a sly reference to the protest and the words of the 1955 Freedom Charter that declared, ‘The People Shall Govern’.
‘As a diaspora Southern African woman born and raised on stolen Country, it became strikingly clear to me the parallels of colonisation between Australia and South Africa the more I listened and learned,’ says Rich.
‘The Purple Shall Govern becomes a vessel for the stories of my ancestors, community and Elders, and in turn my work is a reflection of the stories I also embody. The exhibition invites us to navigate and consider our relationships with histories that have residually informed the ways in which we move within public spaces.
‘I am privileged to be able to share my family’s lived experiences of an Apartheid system and feel an accountability and responsibility to create a work that I hope can evoke reflection on this country’s own histories of Apartheid.’
Previously presented at Footscray Community Arts – as part of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s Who’s Afraid of Public Space? Big Picture series in 2022 – The Purple Shall Govern’s video installation work Though buried, They echo recently saw Rich win the major $20,000 Footscray Community Art Prize.
Rich has adapted The Purple Shall Govern to sit within PICA’s gallery and screen space, presenting archival objects alongside five multi-layered mixed-media installation works entitled The Purple Shall Govern; Though buried, They echo; And so, the mood was quite intense; Lunch with the family at Mignon Street, Cape Town; and Pigs might fly too.
Throughout these works Rich notes the historic connections between colonial Australia and South Africa, with the concept of Apartheid being birthed in Australia well before South African government legislation was developed.
Unearthing silenced histories, Rich pairs her family’s archival objects from the Apartheid era and Australian and South African archival broadcast media with works that feature conversations and recollections from her family and southern African communities. ‘Re-presenting’ sound, video and archival provocations, Rich prompts us to question how power plays out in public spaces. Who can move freely without fear or hindrance and whose experiences are mitigated?
PICA Curator Sarah Wall said: ‘Roberta’s work navigates Australia and South Africa’s brutal histories of segregation, while deftly reminding us of the resilience of colonised peoples.’
‘In entering the exhibition, visitors can reflect on the tangible and intangible barriers to travel and movement and everyday freedoms that many Bla(c)k peoples have experienced and continue to experience. You’ll walk past her aunt’s identity pass and a reference book, colloquially known as a “dompas” or dumb pass, which determined the areas people could enter in South Africa.
‘The galleries, bathed in purple light, recall the iconic Purple Rain Protests, where in one surreal action police, protestors and crowds alike were painted purple.’
Illuminating PICA’s galleries with purple light, Rich encourages us to consider our relationship to colonial occupation and celebrates the ongoing survival of Bla(c)k people. The Purple Shall Govern runs from 3 November – 31 December 2023.
Please join us to celebrate the opening of the Kambarang/Birak season program on Saturday 4 November from 11am.
Media Contact & Images
Tiki Menegola | firstname.lastname@example.org | +61 467 227 822
Roberta Joy Rich: The Purple Shall Govern
West End Gallery & Screen Space
3 November – 31 December 2023
Weekends at PICA: The Purple Shall Govern
Saturday 4 November, 11am–12:30pm
PICA celebrates the opening of Roberta Rich’s exhibition with a morning of artist talks and a Welcome to Country.
PICA After Dark
Every Friday | 10 November – 15 December* | 5–8pm
PICA will be open late with DJs, drinks from PICA Bar and family craft activities to celebrate the beginning of the festive season.
*Excluding Friday 1 December.
Thank You to Our Supporters
This project was presented by Footscray Community Arts in 2022 as part of Who’s Afraid of Public Space? In collaboration with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.
It has been generously funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria and the Besen Foundation.
Image: Roberta Joy Rich, The Purple Shall Govern, 2021, image © UCT Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives. The artist has applied a purple hue to the original monochrome archival image.