Kimberley Miller

Professor of Art History and Women’s Studies, Wheaton College, MA

“First and Foremost, We Need to Feel”: Women as Breakers of Silence at the Johannesburg Women’s Jail

This talk responds to the profound silence surrounding the memory of women’s prison experiences within South Africa’s post-apartheid public culture.  It considers the relationship between trauma, memory, and representation through an analysis of “sites of suffering” for women activists during and immediately after the liberation struggle, focusing primarily on the Johannesburg Women’s Jail, where female political prisoners were held.

Formerly an apartheid-era prison, the Women’s Jail is now a museum located on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.  It is a space that allows for the expression of women’s activism and agency by centering the voices of former prisoners as they tell their own stories of suffering and survival.  They tell about the prison as a site of female companionship, resistance, and as a space that allowed for intellectual exchange among women.

My analysis of this site addresses the political power of physical spaces, the ways that women’s lives were spatialized under apartheid, and how reinvention allows for an exploration of feminist concerns in these same spaces.  I also consider the ways in which emotion influences, and is formative to, the process of research, writing, and work having to do with trauma and suffering.


Kim Miller is Associate Professor at Wheaton College in Norton, MA, where she   holds the Jane Oxford Keiter Professorship of women’s and gender studies and art history.  She is a research associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design research center, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.  Miller’s scholarship, which examines the relationship between visual culture, gender, and power in African arts, includes her forthcoming book, How did they Dare? Women’s Activism and the Work of Memory in South African Commemorative Art.  Her first book, Bronze Warriors and Plastic Presidents: Public Art in South Africa, 1999 – 2015, is co-edited with Brenda Schmahmann.