I have read books that reflect a worldwide context where ideas of colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing and geographical identity inform the content of my research about South Africa’s racist history.
Present Pasts, Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory
Andreas Huyssen (2003)
The obsession with the past presents ideas about memory where the past fractures time so that the future is also threatened by an “abyss of amnesia and wilful forgetting.” I had to look up the meaning of palimpsests. As I understand it, it is the trace of language rubbed out, eroded or worked over. In this sense, concealed. I have begun to think about how a painting might be buried in relation to memory politics, and excavated as memory is revisited.
The idea of persecuted peoples needing a memory museum as Sontag suggests and which Daniel Liebeskind’s Berlin Museum with the Jewish Museum embraces; his idea stemming from his vision to leave the place where the Berlin Wall came down as an empty space, a vacant ruin in a no-mans-land, a broken ideology in a space where people could reflect upon the significance of the Wall, and its coming down in 1990. The empty space, or the void, was translated into the design of the Jewish Museum. Contemplating our own understanding or relationship with the event, too big and too unimaginable to describe however poignant a shoe, a piano, or a letter may be, emptiness is more powerful.
Physical reconstruction of Berlin was inevitable, along with reconstructing memory in history and public engagement in the museum in Buenos Aires and New York too. The memory sculptures of Doris Salcedo, an artist whose work I have long admired, in her work Unland, the identity of her homeland Columbia is understood. Torn apart by perpetual cycles of violence and lawlessness, all semblance of normal life is impossible and “unliveable”. Huyssen writes as the viewer engages with her sculptures, the “expressive power grows slowly; it depends on duration, on sustained contemplation, on visual, linguistic, and political associations woven together into a dense texture of understanding.” In Unland two tables are roughly joined, mutilated and violently “jammed together”. It embodies memory, temporality, and the human figure when looking closely at the surface of the table, fine threads of silk are visible like the lines on the palm of a hand, which creates intimacy and a sense of fragility and vulnerability. (p110-112).
From a post-apartheid view, rebuilding South Africa through memory testament in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 is a demonstration of the idea that the present (and the future) are defined by our understanding of the past. In global temporal spaces that shrink and distort time so that not only is the present affected, our cultural pasts need to be understood to imagine a future.
Belonging, a culture of place, Bell Hooks (2009)
Racism in America is written from a black woman’s perspective. Her connection with Kentucky, a place which offers a similar experience to mine, hers with weeds and asparagus, mine with weeds in orange groves with the dogs after school. Growing up near game reserves on a citrus farm offered an idyllic place of belonging. Hooks’ bonding with the sound of the train late at night after a free day in the sun echoes mine, distant and comforting.
She considers her belonging to a place where racial prejudice is part of the social fabric and of her history, and how memory can take you back to state of mind in a sacred place even when you are no longer able to return there.
I found it interesting to read about racial prejudice in another culture and to find it makes no difference to a sense of attachment to place, the longing for it and the value it holds in our memories.
Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag (2003)
Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others considers the role journalistic photography takes as it exposes human suffering in conflict areas. She questions our capacity for sympathy and makes me think about our habituation to violence in South Africa, and how we choose to distance ourselves in order to cope. Her ideas are included in my essay.
Familiar Stranger, A Life Between Two Islands,
Stuart Hall with Bill Shwarz (2017)
“Sometimes I feel myself to have been the last colonial”
This memoir felt very familiar, and was published posthumously. Stuart Hall’s childhood was spent growing up in colonial Jamaica, and mine in apartheid South Africa, both of us immigrating to the UK and each straddling two cultures.
He came to the UK in 1951 on a scholarship to Oxford University. Post -war England was changing and questions of race, class and identity were being raised. He is a writer and a philosopher who says he was “fated to mix history with memory and desire.” He sees the connections and differences between the two islands, and also of colonial and post-colonial Jamaica.
What I related to personally was the question of identity. I am still asking ‘Where is home?’ He says that he came to understand that identity is fluid and is an on-going incomplete process. His resistance to the colonial circumstances he inherited impacted on the “devilment” of his identity. In later life he still questioned feelings of displacement “and a long and harsh process of disenchantment.” (Hall, 2017 p22)
His description of colonial power, the effect of servitude on his formative years where he rejected acceptance of the governing power and felt he was in “internal exile”. Growing up in Kingston in the 1930’s, he found the brown middle class uncomfortable, especially as they compared themselves to the white elite.
He thinks of himself as a “diasporic”, which became a new term for identity and which helped to understand his relocation. “It allows me to unearth and give meaning to my own experiences and sensibilities” including his own philosophies. (Hall, 2017, p 146)
He wanted to change British society, so by not allowing himself to get drawn into the old imperial homeland he was able to harness his commitment to change without “giving my soul away”. (Hall 2017 p271)
This book helped me to understand a wider context of the morally unjust effects of colonialism on racial discrimination in particular, knowing that South Africa was once a British colony too with a patchy past. There are many similarities where life is fraught by the shadow of racism.
Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell (2002)
Invention, Memory, and Place by Edward W. Said
With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate to hear testimonies from victims and perpetrators of violence in South Africa in 1996 through recollecting events from the past, history was reconstructed. Not everybody trusted this process, precisely because the nature of memory is unreliable and vulnerable to manipulation. Edward Said’s ideas about recollection, confession and witness question whether memory is in fact the truth, and includes powerful ideas about identity and nationalism. He says the ‘Modern need for memory, which is history, is to give identity in a time of massive change’. In a South African context, apartheid categorised people by type, and kept them separate. Said suggests that memory could refashion history, “Especially in collective forms, to give themselves a coherent identity, a national narrative, a place in the world.” (Mitchell p 245)
Edward Said’s and Simon Schama’s perceptions are on opposite sides; the Palestinian philosopher versus the Jewish. Said notes that the link between the memories of the Holocaust directly influenced the creation of a nation for the Jews in 1948, but not wishing to have ‘memory assassinated’ at the same time 750 000 Palestinians were displaced and a society destroyed. Other territories were occupied in 1967. In 1998 it was the 50th anniversary of Israel and he says Palestine has never had any official compensation for their losses suffered.
This is a similar situation for all post colonial nations, “who have a right to create a remembered presence and with that right, a right to possess and reclaim a collective historical reality.”
I found myself comparing this to how black South Africans must feel in post-colonial/ post-apartheid South Africa. Collective memory is a powerful force, neither passive nor neutral, and can mobilise people around a common goal. Some believe that whilst the Rainbow Nation grew out of collective redemption and nation building others believe it delayed hatred and the country is struggling to create a fair society.
Night, Elie Wiesel (1972)
I have just finished reading this whisp of a book written by a person who survived the Holocaust. It is so tragic and so powerful. The events described etched in my mind, the despair relentless, the suffering insurmountable. And yet Elie Wiesel survived.
It is the most harrowing account I have ever read.
I can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s a small book. The treatment reminds me of Luke Tyman’s small painting, Gas Chamber. In the face of such a colossal human failing, how writers and artists express this poignantly and with respect, is often by saying less with fewer marks, or less pages.
Wiesel received awards: The Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honour and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Part of his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech at the end of the book reads:
“I remember: It happened yesterday or eternities ago. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? That applies to Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore when they lead to violence. Violence is not the answer. Terrorism is the most dangerous of answers.”
I agree. It is the same question as the South African deep-rooted attitude to change where amnesia, for many whites, is easier. We should never forget.
South African Literature
Memoir and autobiography reveal attachments to land through personal history in the many books I have read about apartheid. Written by politicians, lawyers, journalists, writers and children of activists who grew up in South Africa during the apartheid years. Memoir is a strong and personal medium that has supported my research with an understanding of how apartheid affected the ordinary lives of so many, including mine in White River and later in Johannesburg during the 1970’s -1980’s.
On My Watch, Behind the News- Book 1, Harvey Tyson (2016)
Written by retired editor of The Star newspaper, a left wing broadsheet, I learned so much about what wasn’t published during apartheid and the struggle to keep information available. This included a protest where The Star ran blank pages to show that people had been detained when prohibited by the government to publish names of missing persons. Tyson went to prison a few times for decisions he made. My mother worked at the Star in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Helen, his daughter, was a friend of mine at Cape Town University.
I didn’t realise we knew so little and were cut off from so much information. Tyson also had an extraordinary friendship with Jan Smuts, who asked for him to sit beside him on his deathbed, with the proviso that he brought no pen and paper. The men respected and trusted each other in their powerful roles, but as human beings too, who were trying to rid the country of apartheid.
Lost and Found in Johannesburg, Mark Gevisser (2014)
Mark Gevisser grew up in Johannesburg around the same time that I lived there in the 1970’s. In his memoir, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, he addresses the experience of displacement by different social groups during apartheid. He discovers a sense of place through the Holmdens’s Register of Johannesburg, a map book, in which he remembers a game of finding routes as a child in the back of his father’s car, as he tries to understand how maps connect and divide us.
The Jukskei River did just that, separating Alexandra Township with the elite Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg and was left out of the map book. When looking for a reason for this, he found that The Street Guide to Witwatersrand reserved this place planned for “separate” development, which highlights the boundaries we did not question.
Delineations were government planned and policed and separated us in every human way; language, culture, religion, race. Gevisser recollects the journey his nanny took from Soweto to his house and how her personal journey was a reflection of the narratives during apartheid from one excluded group to another.
His Jewish family was originally from Lithuanaia, and he thought constantly about “how we map our identities onto landscapes.” (Gevisser 2014 p21)
I see the South African landscape, in all its phenomenology, and which is inside me, as my personal route map to in an inner sanctuary. It belongs in me. And I in it. This is a lasting relationship that runs deep and is irrevocable. Hence the lingering desire to return.
Gevisser writes about his childhood in Johannesburg represented in photo albums “the bucolic gardens of my Kodachrome childhood, wooded and green, and irrigated, a world of swimming-pools and sprinklers – and the harsh bleached landscapes just beyond its suburban walls.” His, like mine, and most white families, lived like this.
I had forgotten about “The Wilds”, a park on the border of city centre Johannesburg and upmarket residential Houghton, now too dangerous to walk your dog. Gevisser was violently attacked in a flat alongside this park with two female friends. It is a brutal account, and one of the reasons I chose not to visit Johannesburg in the end during my trip home. It is unpredictable, chaotic, dangerous and savage.
The changing landscape, as resized by politics in a shifting process of further separation within ever diminishing maps. He writes about the intense inequality in our society which one’s conscience has to notice, but that we make a deal with ourselves to live a life of comfort dependent on cheap domestic labour. However the ‘violation of one’s home and hearth is the primal settler anxiety, deeply embedded in white South African consciousness” and a real threat in many parts of the country, especially Johannesburg. To live this life of ease “you have to live in denial at some level, otherwise you would never be able to leave your house, or go into your garden, or sleep at night. These attacks happen all the time, but you build around yourself a battlement of false security.” (Gevisser, 2014 p269)
Vigilance is in every breath you take, and yet there is “something of the redemptive in this hostile environment.” Gevisser 2014 p300)
Every Secret Thing, my family, my country, Gillian Slovo (1997)
‘An extraordinary expression of the very nature of loving, which illuminates, with the anger and tenderness of deep emotion, that human territory we all occupy, and where we conceal so much from ourselves.’ Nadine Gordimer.
Gillian Slovo’s activist parents were in exile in Mozambique when her mother, Ruth First, was murdered by a letter bomb in 1982, age 57. Before this they lived in Johannesburg. Joe Slovo was head of the banned South African Communist Party and personal friend of Nelson Mandela, and her mother, Ruth First, a journalist and political activist was seen as a ‘high priestess’ by the black community.
Slovo recalls a childhood of fear of a violent death, as her mothers’ was, growing up with activist parents. Family outings were police-tailed, letters written in code and phones tapped, moving many times often undercover. She retraces events step by step that led to her mother’s assassination, returning to South Africa from London, where she lives. It is an extraordinary account of the brutality of apartheid, but it is also about her parents’ relationship and the secrets and turmoil of this family’s history. Towards the end of her father’s life, he was made a Minister in Mandela’s first administration. Finally Slovo tracks down her mother’s murderer and bears witness to this moving account of everything her family fought for.
At her mother’s funeral Gillian Slovo writes;
“I looked at the crowds who had come to mourn Ruth, I read tributes, I saw the pain of her death in others’ eyes and I recognised something that I had too long denied- I couldn’t walk away. The place wouldn’t leave me alone. If nothing else, I would have to work out what South Africa meant to me. From that moment, I would have to face my past.”
This paragraph, more than any other, has made me have the courage to honestly look inside and to face what South Africa means to me.
South Africa in Black and White, Juhan Kuus (1987)
Juhan Kuus’ documentation of life under apartheid rule is an impartial raw account. I have permission to use these images in my paintings, for which I am very grateful. Kuus’ images feed our collective memory and are an important legacy so that we never forget the violent struggle of so many, and who suffered so much, during those bitter or blinkered years under the repressive regime of National Government of South Africa.
“I do not pretend to be a political expert on the problems facing South Africa today nor do I offer a solution. I prefer to see my role merely as a photographer recording what I see and experience. I neither support nor endorse any ideology whatsoever. Difficult as it may seem, I do not take sides- I take photographs. I am against all forms of violence. Violence perpetrated on the individual or on nations cannot be condoned”
– Juhan Kuus, London, 1987
Negotiating the Past, The Making of Memory in South Africa
Edited by Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee, (2006)
Once the drafting of the new constitution of South Africa after the democratic elections in 1994 was done, where freedom and equality for all were represented, the next most urgent task was to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Starting in 1996, the grim past, between 1 March 1960 to 5 December 1995, was uncovered through testimony in a public forum where both perpetrators and victims of violence could offer their truth by way of memory in the return for amnesty and redemption.
This collection of essays offers insights by several authors about the on-going debate about the role of memory in reconciliation, how it is created and inscribed, and how certain versions of the past are remembered, and which ones are privileged.
Njabulo Ndebele sees the TRC as the production of ‘truth’ to stand in the place of the lies associated with apartheid. In this ‘moral desert’, the extent of silencing through many forms of brutality and torture were confirmed. ‘This was the psychology of habit which made prejudice a standard mode of perception.’ Black people were not hated, ‘they simply became objects at the receiving end of elaborate institutionalised process of maintaining domination.’ Power and wealth became the ‘dominant determinants of behaviour in socially embedded corruption’. (Ndebele, p23 and p24, 1998)
Andre Brink sees the TRC as a process of healing through truthful narrative.
Anthony Holiday writes that the TRC is a ‘vexed issue’ where the truth can be manipulated in public confession, and this in no way guarantees contrition. Does pardon stand in for the law?
Ingrid De Kok offers that the TRC could be promoting amnesia in the ‘silences imposed in the name of reconciliation’, the foundation on which nation building rested.
Individual and collective memory is discussed from a confessional view in Michael Godby’s commentary on William Kentridge’s film, The History of the Main Complaint, which is about excessive lifestyle typical of many white South Africans where disease is a metaphor and a social diagnosis.
I found the insights into how memory operates, is retrieved, manipulated, shared or buried, offers me a rich vocabulary to interpret into the painted equivalent in terms of mark making, choice of thinness of paint, of surface, of unconfined supports and structures. This making ‘visible’ the past as Mamdani warns, ‘in the aftermath of conflict, healing is not a foregone conclusion.’
Neither are there definite answers, so paintings that ask more questions than find resolutions is the direction I am taking.
Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee (1990)
The visual language J.M. Coetzee uses to describe the ordinariness and ‘bizarreness’ of what life was really like in South Africa informs my ideas, and transports me back there distinctly and profoundly. His language fuels my paintings and my connection to my own memory. (I have permission to use a text from this book in my work.) His descriptions of the privilege and innocence of white life, ‘plump bee grubs’ is referred to in Conceptual Development and Studio Practice.
The Waiting Country, A South African Witness, Mike Nicol (1995)
This is an account of what South Africa was like leading up to and after the elections in 1994. The frantic violence from all parties right up until the extraordinary calm that paused the country, and in sun-baked queues which snaked for kilometres, patient people waited during 4 days of voting, many for the first time.
Nicol describes conversations with white people who had lost children in terrorist attacks, black people who were caught up in AWB attacks (far right wing militants) and meeting the Afrikaners in their “decrepit little ring-fenced town”, a place cordoned off for them, a State within a State.
Like Sontag, he thinks that violence becomes meaningless and ‘permeates and perverts the way we think of one another. It destroys the social contract that binds us. There is too much of it. It is too horrible to understand. Consequently the vocabulary used to describe the violence becomes devalued and we no longer allow the mental picture of a person being necklaced to be summoned up by the word.” (Nicol, p102, 1990)
He describes a nation in extreme turmoil and distress. He thinks the only way to understand suffering is to confront it and to take it into your own life to learn the meaning of agony.
In the end he writes about the whales who return each year to mate and to calf in False Bay, rituals that are mysterious and reliable, having chosen this place which is part of their existence; profound and tender, part of a wider conversation with ourselves and the land and the sea.
White Writing : On the Culture of Letters in South Africa
J.M. Coetzee (1988)
I was reading J.M. Coetzee’ White Writing: On the Culture of Letters on the train to Cambridge from London to see Oscar Murillo’s exhibition. Thinking about the Cape Colony in 1652 as a kind of garden, a mythical Eden, for replenishing supplies to the Dutch East India Company’s ships en route to the East Indies. I had never thought about it as a garden before but the geographical routes mapped out enriched colonial empires for centuries. Until the British arrived in 1795 the Cape was a historical backwater, even if at the same time a terrestrial paradise.
The book includes essays about a range of written works in English and Afrikaans, among some the 19th Century travel writing of William Burchell who compares landscapes of England and South Africa, and includes other essays about the Plaasroman, (farm novel) of C.M. Van Den Heever. His writing explores the Afrikaner’s relationship to ownership of land, not only as inheritance, but as a marriage, to remain faithful to it in good years and in bad. Understanding this, with their strong belief that it was their “Promised Land”, it enables some understanding I think of what lay behind the motivation for the Great Trek, and informs my view of their position in the current land rights crisis. The question asked is, “Is it conceivable that he loves the land only because he owns it?” It is a “blood-marriage too deep for words”. It is described as ” a particular kind of spiritual experience available only to landowners”. (Coetzee, 1988, p90, p91)
Black Mirror was recommended viewing to me after the Richter talk in our discussion about contemporary violence. I don’t usually watch sci-fi or psycho thrillers. Three times I stopped and started again because it bothered me not to find out what happened. I wonder if this is the human need to know, the rubber necking theory.
After Richter’s blurring, it was interesting to see how this was done in film and how I might use painterly techniques to communicate the uncertainty in the subtext of a painting or as metaphorical painterly language. The colour treatment is very sci-fi, therefore unreal. I have been thinking about manipulating colour to enhance the superficial, artificial white world of South Africans.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Peter Weir, 1975
I remember seeing this film a long time ago and being haunted by the eerie disappearance of young girls while picnicking at Hanging Rock. I was 14 at the time, in a similar Victorian modelled boarding school. The film is popular still today in its original form. I watched it in the library and was immersed in the building intensity of unease through sound, framed glimpses of the girls’ white dresses and slow moving figures through crevasses and caves, all symbolic and beautifully framed.
I thought it could help inform my painting with underlying messages of disquiet in the way it was filmed, thinking also about Doig’s Friday the 13th. I don’t think I could use a still of white dressed schoolgirls in the rough Australian bush land as it’s not African, but I am thinking about the power of sound to create tension perhaps as an installation. Music is very much a part of African tradition and it is often very moving.
An Act of Defiance
Bram Fischer, 2017
Bram Fischer was the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela after the Rivonia arrests where he and many others were jailed, tried and found guilty of treason. It is an extraordinary account and shows how little we knew growing up as white children during apartheid. I feel so ashamed. Mandela’s name was forbidden and arrests could be made for using it. As an art student in Cape Town in 1980 I made a print “Free Mandela!” I had no idea this was treason on my behalf.
Liza Key, 2009
I met Liza Key at Cafe Paradiso, an old haunt of mine, not far from my much loved little house at the foot of Table Mountain. At the time Liza was researching a documentary about Winnie Mandela who had died a few weeks before. We talked about her work; the films she makes about ordinary people’s lives who are a product of hate and separateness, mistrust and suffering.
Her film REwind is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and takes the process of how memory is retrieved and recorded and interprets this visually with a cantata soundtrack composed by Philip Miller. Miller has made many films with William Kentridge.
We also talked about my attachment to South Africa revisiting home after a long time away, and my intention to connect with landscape in painting. I spoke about a changing relationship, without answers, and she liked the idea that I intended for outcomes to be open, not manipulated.
We spoke about archive footage which is not neutral. She suggested I make my own and to be a ‘new voice’.
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961
This was a reference Jonathan Wateridge mentioned. I watched La Notte to get an idea of the cinematography we discussed and thought about narrative, how to interrupt it and how to interpret this as a painter. A few weeks ago there was an Instagram post from Parafin Gallery London quoting Antonioni for the exhibition ‘ Blow Up: Painting, Photography and Reality’ (2015)”I always mistrust everything which I see, which an image shows me, because I imagine what is behind it. And what is beyond an image cannot be known.” This intrigue is the magic of painting that holds us, why we keep making and looking at art. I related to the press release quote more than his films, because a group of artists, including Mark Fairnington responded to the meaning hidden in existing images and through a process of ‘excavation and mediation’ ‘deconstructed, reconstructed, fragmented, collaged and finally rendered in paint’ new images which were hidden within them. I relate to all this as my process embraces this same methodology. As the year comes to an end, after all the research, books read, lectures attended, interviews, trips and crits, finally the essence is all that is shown.
Bill Viola / Michelangelo
Life Death Rebirth
Royal Academy, Friday, 22 March
The Messenger (1996)
In the opening video installation I was transfixed watching The Messenger (1996), which shows a naked man gradually becoming visible as he slowly emerges from deep water breaking the surface to take a few slow breaths before submerging to deeper water again.
I didn’t read anything, preferring to just feel where it took me. It was profound in its simplicity. It was about life and death as experienced by this symbolic figure. Later I read that the “camera acts as the viewer’s eye, while video’s unfolding of images over time is akin to the way perception is transformed through thought, feeling, memory, dreams and the subconscious.” (Andrea Tarsia, A guide for Friends, RA).
In Viola’s work, and my previous work, water recurs as a metaphor for passing through states of change.
Michelangelo’s drawings are paired with Viola’s films about cycles of life, similar spiritual states of transcendence, and are part of Queen Elizabeth’s private rarely seen drawing collection.