Today we wanted to take a moment and look at artist Melvin Edwards’ Tambo, created in 1933, to commemorate Oliver Tambo, who died the same year. Tambo was the president of the African National Congress (ANC), who, with Nelson Mandela, transformed the ANC in the mid-1940s into an activist organization that called on South Africa’s black population to engage in nonviolent forms of civil disobedience against apartheid laws. (1)
In March 1960, the ANC took a militant position after police killed 69 peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, and were banned by the government. For the next 30 years, Tambo was in exile, marshalling international support and building a guerilla army. (2)
Tambo is an assemblage of steel implements – wrenches, steel rods, a shovel, a spear, fragments of I-beams, a seamed metal ball – that speak to their industrial origins, and to metaphorical possibilities. The I-beam fragments and wrenches allude to Tambo’s efforts to repair society; the chain evokes the bondage of black South Africans; and the shovel and spear symbolically honor the son of peasant farmers who devoted his life to securing equality for South Africa’s black residents. (3)
Edwards grew up in a segregated Houston community, won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, but rejected a professional athletic career to become an artist. He graduated from art school at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and began creating works that addressed African American life and history. “It seemed logical,” he said, “that . . . I should be able to participate through my work.” (4)
His welded sculptures are often inspired by political issues, ranging from civil rights to African-American identity. In his best known series, Lynch Fragments, he welds together common steel objects to form a “steel life,” acknowledging the history of African Americans who have been, for more than 200 years, subject to violence, exclusion, and brutality at the hands of law enforcement.(5)
Edwards’s “Tambo” and over 40 more artworks by 34 African American artists are featured in “African American Art in the 20th Century,” a traveling exhibition organized by Smithsonian American Art Museum, at The Westmoreland.