The Light Bulb Moment: The Artist's Concept

By Gillian Anstey

 Johannes Phokela says he wanted his memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini to have
Johannes Phokela says he wanted his memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini to have "more to do with hope than anything else".

Although he later lived in London for about 18 years, Johannes Phokela was a 10-year-old schoolboy living in Moletsane, Soweto on June 16, 1976, the momentous day he commemorates in this artwork.

He remembers the day well: "I was at school, we started coughing and the teacher closed the windows. We were told to lie on the floor. We were kept at school until it was safe... Coming out we saw big smoke. People started burning public businesses, especially those considered to be owned by whites, and drinking places like bottle stores."

Initially Phokela, who describes himself as a painter and a two-dimensional artist, thought of doing a mural. But he rejected it as "a little bit old-fashioned and with an old, socialist kind of ethos".

He was also concerned about preservation. "A mural fades," he said, adding that murals served their purpose during the Soviet and Mexican revolutions. He said he wanted this memorial to have "more to do with hope than anything else". So he decided to create a photographic montage on ceramic tiles.

His design needed to be placed against a wall. After considering various walls within the grounds of Morris Isaacson High School in White City, Jabavu, where the march started, it was decided to place the artwork in the park across the road.

This meant Phokela's artwork had to incorporate the building of a freestanding wall, which changed his plans. "I couldn't do an ordinary square wall; it had to be sculptural, interesting in itself," he said.
Initially Phokela thought of doing a mural. But he rejected it as 'a little bit old-fashioned and with an old, socialist kind of ethos'

"After much experimentation, I decided to do a wall that looked like a text book. It's covered in tiles and on a podium which could be used for other projects, such as poetry sessions," he said.

The book of his memorial is titled "June 16, 1976" with the quote: "Wait, this is our day!" as a subtitle.

Phokela's painted and collaged images were then scanned and Photoshopped. However, putting the images on the tiles proved somewhat problematic. First ceramic transfers were considered, before this was abandoned for a sophisticated photographic technique.

The completed work features photographs of Mashinini as well as other students with clenched fists and protest posters, and pictures of police shooting, interspersed with paintings of student scenes by Phokela, as well as numerous quotes including Afrikaans words and Zulu phrases.

The memorial is 2m x 3m, and the podium stands 1,5m from the wall.

The images on the 10cm x 10cm tiles face the busy Mputhi Street, a montage of billowing teargas within which the outline of the proposed route of the march is sketched.

Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya unveiled the memorial on the 30th anniversary of the student uprising, on June 16, 2006. This followed Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo renaming the park the "June 16 Memorial Acre".

The function was attended Mashinini's daughters, Nomkitha and Thembi; his mother, Nomkitha; his ex-wife, Welma Mashinini-Redd; many of his siblings and Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo. The memorial has become the textbook it represents, with many visitors tracing the route of the march on the artwork with their fingers, to explain to others their own whereabouts on June 16, 1976.

back to the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial page

"I, Tsietsi Mashinini, appeal to students to report back to school."
Tsietsi Mashinini, 1976
Picture © British Thames Television


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about how the different people in their lives would describe them. They are asked to reflect if they think that their caregiver or teacher would say the same things about them as their best friend. They will apply their insights on differing perspectives to historical sources such as newspapers and letters.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from the short life of Tsietsi Mashinini.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Five views of the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial
The concept for the memorial
Johannes Phokela discusses the development of his concept for the memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini
Take a 360º tour of Mashinini's memorial opposite his former high school on Mputhi Street, Soweto.
Audio Slideshow