SS Mendi exhibition closes with poetry

Hillary Graham
Hillary Graham    Picture: Londeka Dlamini

The Friends of the Art Museum have organised two events this week to mark the closure of the exhibition Remembering the SS Mendi at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Park Drive.

The art museum is hosting the launch of The Cold Sea: Mendi Poems, a collection of poetry by pupils and other members of Nelson Mandela Bay community at the closing function, at 5 for 5.30pm on Thursday.

In addition to this, the Friends have organised for Remembering the S S Mendi artist Hillary Graham to conduct a walkabout of his work at 3pm, before the launch. Graham will also conduct a drawing workshop at the harbour from 9 to 11am on Saturday.

The poetic link will be a poignant addition to the memorial this year of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, a nautical disaster in which more than 600 South African soldiers died.

Contributors to The Cold Sea: Mendi Poems took part in poetry workshops facilitated by Brian Walter and assisted by Olwethu Mxoli and Leonie Williamson. They will be performing selected poems on Thursday, along with a recital of the famous hymn Ama-Gora e-Mendi written by SE KMqayi and composed by AM Jon as.

Poetry has been central to the story of the SS Mendi. Poet Mqhayi, who was the Imbongi ye Sizwe, or national bard, of the Xhosa people at the time of the World War 1, felt deeply about the disaster. He had played a formative role in the recruitment campaign through a poem that he wrote calling men to arms, titled The Black Army.

In response to the tragedy, Mqhayi wrote Ukutshona KukaMendi – The Sinking of the Mendi – which kept the memory of this event alive in the oral narrative of the Xhosa communities in the Eastern Cape during the years when black historical events were written out of the history books.

Detail of one of Hillary Graham’s paintings of the SS Mendi

Graham was initially inspired to make an artwork about this tragic event when he attended the Xhosa Art and literature festival held at Fort Hare University in 1987, and encountered Mqhayi’s work.

Then, Walter along with fellow poets Cathal Lagan and Basil Somhlahlo collaborated with the artist in 1994 to produce a book of poetry titled Mendi: Poems on the Sinking of the Mendi.

The sinking of the Mendi also is highlighted at the National Arts Festival, in an art exhibition that will include Graham’s paintings and on the Think!Fest programme. On July 2 on the Wordfest sub-programme, screenwriter Brenda Shepherd will speak on her book Men of the Mendi and Walter and the Helenvale poets will give a reading linked to the event.

The Albany Museum will host the visual art exhibition Abantu BeMendi for the duration of the festival.

Contact the gallery for more information, (041) 506-2000, e-mail: or visit the website: Visit the NAF website for information on the arts festival:

Detail of one of Hillary Graham’s paintings of the SS Mendi


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