Fatima Meer: Painting in prison

Reading rank and race in the Constitutional Hill’s Women’s Jail

The everyday manifestations of race and rank followed women all the way into prison during the apartheid era. The women’s jail at Constitutional Hill, now re-purposed as a museum, holds artwork from a number of former inmates including anti-apartheid activist, Fatima Meer.

If you thought that incarceration was a potential leveler amongst women during apartheid then think again. Amidst the recent revival of rainbowism, a trip to the woman’s jail at Con Hill may serve as an unwanted reminder of Apartheids institutionalization of rank according to race.

At the price of R65, post-apartheid citizens and the rest of the world can visit the living relic and see for themselves the testimonials mounted around the museum and it’s walls. Like a pentimento, the building has a layered exterior, reflecting its changes through time. However, for the seeking eye the traces of its original purpose remain discernible. For instance, the design of the building is panoptic, this is a typical style for prison architecture. The whole structure is shaped like an open square with an atrium located in the middle, the atrium is a circular section with two floors, from the outside it juts upwards into the air, giving it a phallic presence. From inside this lofty height one imagines this is where wardens would stand and gaze outward into the court yard maximizing full surveillance on women bodies, ensuring they are within sight and control.

Upon arrival the visitor will typically walk through an open air courtyard, across a narrow strip of tiles that cut through the lawn connecting the entrance of the jail to the cells located within the atrium. However, the pace of ones walk is significantly slowed down as it is punctuated by a line of the inscripted glass sheets that demand the visitor to stop and read. Mounted along this path these glass sheets reveal heartbreaking testimonials quoted from both former wardens and inmates. One learns that the courtyard is where inmates were rounded up and counted, daily, it is also where they ate their meals whose quality typically varied according to race, apparently the daily budget for feeding white prisoners was sixty cents a day, 30 cents a day for Asians and 15 cents a day for Coloureds and Africans. As Smith states that, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” Until 1976, black women prisoners were forced to remove their shoes and underwear upon admission, this demeaning practice was further exacerbated during menstruation, a former inmate Bell Dlamini recalls:

“We had to hold the pad between our legs, if it fell down we would get a klap. But then we got advice from those who had been here for long to hold it with shoelaces that were stolen from the storerooms. Pads used to have loops, that’s where you inserted shoelaces and tied them around your waist.”

The women’s jail now repurposed as a museum uses a range of mediums to convey its stories; for instance, video, photography and found objects such as letters and clothes are installed inside the small cubicles that used to be cells.

The museum has recently expanded their collection. As part of their permanent collection, they have since August 2017 started exhibiting the drawings and paintings of the now late struggle veteran and former inmate, Fatima Meer. Different art media for example pencils, oil paint, acrylic or watercolors give us information beyond in the images they convey.

More importantly the use of certain medium over another can tell us about the social circumstances of the artist at a particular space and time. Fatima Meer uses ballpoint pen and poster paints to render her small images. Poster color is a water based types of paint made out of acrylic, a form of plastic. More pertinently, poster paint like the ink in ballpoint pen is a cheap, quick drying medium, usually used by children for school projects, however in Meer’s case it is used secretly under risky circumstances. This explains why Meer was able to smuggle her pictures out of prison. She did this by rolling them up and hiding them in her underwear and this enabled her to pass them to her lawyer during consultation.

This was an act of defiance as she was only permitted to paint and draw birthday and Christmas cards for other prisoners and not the everyday prison scenes that we see in her work. Although painting these scenes was a risky activity that could have landed her in serious trouble with authorities, her paintings and drawings extend from rank and social privilege that was denied to black women inmates.

Fatima Meer is open about this in her prison diary, where she states that even in prison she had a status that was different from others because she was classified as ‘asian’ and not ‘black’ and it is precisely from this position where she was able to gain access paint and paper. Meer’s paintings do not generally carry the heavy bleakness and horror evident in the narratives recited by other inmates. Nonetheless in her intimate painting My cell, she betrays the light hearted dispositions in her other work. My Cell depicts a small narrow room with a heavy bolted door as its focal point, there is a steel bucket at the corner of the room and a few other essentials, the isolation and helplessness carried by this painting is palpable. By comparison, Meer’s rendition of her cell remains a far cry from the cells in the white section which were luxurious by comparison, Meer describes that, “The European cells had orange curtains I have never forgotten. They had proper toilets, tables, chairs and beds. It looked like one of our hospitals back home.”

These were the everyday manifestations of race and rank that followed women all the way into prison and incarceration. This system continues despite their objections of which underpin the conditions for their imprisonment. And it is these markers that make an indelible impression on Fatima Meer, that we, on the other side the frame are able to read in her images.


Meer, F. 2001. Prison Diary: One Hundred and Thirteen Days. Kwela Books: Cape Town.

Mdluli, S. 2010. Paintings and drawings of Fatima Meer in the context of the struggle narrative at Constitutional Hill. MA dissertation, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg

Smith, D. 2009. Ghosts of South African prison tell what apartheid really meant. The Guardian. [O]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/31/south-africa-prison-apartheid Accessed 25 February 2018