South Africa native hopes to bring apartheid-era art, artists to Chicago

Chicago Sun-Times | Maudlyne Ihejirika:


South African-born Soraya Sheppard started her Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns during Black History Month to share a vision and a journey.

Sheppard, 54, of Rogers Park, is raising funds for a one-of-a-kind art exhibition that will bring rare South African art and the artists to Chicago on Labor Day.

Soraya Sheppard, 54, of Rogers Park, (r) with an unidentified man, at one of her exhibits. Sheppard fled her country’s apartheid regime 25 years ago, returning to visit only after Nelson Mandela was freed. Stumbling across a treasure trove of original pre- and post-apartheid paintings and drawings by South African artists on a 2012 visit home, she’s made it her calling to showcase the hidden artwork around the world. See video at source.

That’s the vision. Color Me Africa Fine Art, Sheppard’s 2-year-old nonprofit, is an epiphany capping a journey that began with resisting apartheid.

She fled her native South Africa in 1987, three years before freedom’s icon, the late Nelson Mandela, was released from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990.

“I worked in advertising at the largest black weekend paper and knew of the atrocities occurring, through articles and photos we couldn’t publish,” she said.

“Joining the Free Nelson Mandela campaign, I began traveling abroad to meet exiled African National Congress members to courier news back into the country,” Sheppard said. “One day I was searched and nearly caught, and I decided it was time to leave.”

She left her family and vowed to remain in exile in the U.S. until Mandela was free.

When he was released after 27 years in prison, she and other exiled South Africans gathered in jubilance to welcome Mandela to Washington, D.C., four months later. It was Mandela’s first U.S. visit, during his 13-nation Freedom Tour.

“I’ll never forget it. When I left South Africa, just to have a photo of him was treasonous, and his name was said only in whispers,” she said. “Now here he was.”

Traveling often between her country of birth and the one she now calls home, Sheppard says she has always hoped to find a way to help her struggling countrymen.

The epiphany happened during a 2011 visit. She stumbled upon a treasure trove of rare apartheid and post-apartheid artwork by South African artists, hidden away.

“I went to see this exhibit. One of the artists informed me the dealer stockpiled art bought for pennies from the artists, who do not benefit. I visited the dealer and was awed by the size of the collection. Then I knew my mission,” she said..

Dedicated to showcasing these once-hidden works and the artists who created them, Color Me Africa is curating “From Apartheid to Freedom,” to be shown at this year’s African Festival of the Arts, scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in Washington Park.

Sheppard has garnered the support of South Africa’s government, which is assisting with visas. But she’ll need funds to get the art and the artists here and to exhibit the striking works reflecting apartheid’s pain and strife.

It was a time when politically minded artists were persecuted and much of the township art was destroyed by security forces, leaving a cultural gap, Sheppard said. “It is a statement of a time gone but not forgotten.”

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