Text and photos by Lerato Dumse
They say and I believe that you forget the feeling of pain. You might not forget the incident that caused you pain, but the actual pain, you forget. I remember some particular cold days in my life, however I don’t remember feeling as much cold induced pain on my face as I felt while walking in Toronto Canada on February 11 2016, on my way to attend the Ryerson University Alumni Awards.
We arrived in Toronto on February 9 because Zanele Muholi was being honoured with an Outstanding International Alumni Award, as a former MFA student in Documentary Media at Ryerson University. A day before the awards Muholi paid a visit to a documentary class at the School of Image Arts for a public Visual Activism talk.
We stayed at the Chelsea Hotel that was less than a 10-minute walk to the Sears Atrium where the awards were held. So it made more sense to walk and avoid being stuck in afternoon traffic. Since everyone had “warned” us about the cold weather, I made sure that I dressed warm, but Toronto managed to sneak an uppercut on my face.
We eventually arrived and were pleased with the warmth that welcomed us inside. We made our way to the 3rd floor where the award ceremony was taking place. We joined the queue to check-in our coats, Muholi had to leave for a dry run of the ceremony and meet with the President, Vice-President and Chancellor, after handing over my coat I made my way inside to begin shooting.
I appreciate meeting and interacting with black people when I am outside of South Africa, I admit that I am spoiled since I come from a country where I form part of the majority. So I feel strange when I arrive at an event and I am one of less than five black people, which was the case at the awards. Nonetheless I floated amongst the crowd, capturing candid shots of Muholi as she mingled.
A friendly lady came up to me and we struck a conversation starting with the weather of course, before moving on to my favourite topic, politics. The alumni awards coincided with South Africa’s State Of The Nation Address, in explaining the current political happenings in SA I spoke about the various #MustFall movements. She seemed to be shocked by my support of the #RhodesMustFall movement and told me to wait while she “tries to find someone she can introduce me to,” that was the last time I saw her that evening.
The ceremony began, the catering and open bar service were halted as everyone found a seat and settled down. Tyler Forkes who is the Assistant Vice-President, Alumni Relations took to the podium as the Master of Ceremonies and invited the Interim President and Vice Chancellor, Mohamed Lachemi to the stage to give his opening remarks.
Followed by Ronald D. Besse who was tasked with welcoming the six recipients. As a Ryerson alumni who graduated with a degree in Business Administration in 1960 and continues to serve the institution, Besse was able to make an impassioned plea to the award recipients to continue finding ways to support Ryerson and its programmes. While sharing about the hard work done by various volunteers and board members to raise funds for Ryerson, he was also successful in introducing laughter in the formal and low-lit room.
The alumni awards were established 18 years ago (1998) when Ryerson celebrated half a century since it’s founding and half a decade as a university.
The moment of truth finally arrived, and Interim Vice-President, University Advancement, Rivi Frankle was called to the front to facilitate the handover of the award certificates .
Muholi got on stage posed for a photo with her award before approaching the mic to give her acceptance speech. The art activist was full of gratitude for those who supported her vision and work. She paid a special tribute to her mentor and MFA funder, and his wife Lily.
Speaking to the media, professors and friends Muholi continuously spoke about her wish to see more Africans joining the documentary programme and having a scholarship available to prevent them from experiencing the same hardships she faced. “I have deep gratitude to all the people who supported me since the beginning of my photography career, it means that one cannot stop working hard but I need to continue with the on-going projects. I am determined to carry on training photo skills to many individuals and ensure that we have a lot of conscious minded visual activists. People who’ll raise socio-political issues of concern and tackle all forms of prejudice using photography as a tool of articulation,” Muholi affirmed.
I have been fortunate to be able to travel with Muholi and on the 11th of February I had the honour of attending the ceremony where she was recognised. It was a real heart warming moment and one of my biggest tests as a photographer, wondering if I would be able to capture the moment, so it can be shared with many, especially those back at home.
Check more on 2016 Alumni Achievement Award recipients