Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
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By: Katy Beinart and Rebecca Beinart
Origination emerged from our interest in genealogy, and family stories of migration.
In 2009-10, we embarked on a journey by ship, retracing the route of our ancestors from Eastern Europe to South Africa.
In 2011, we were in residence in Brixton Market, London, and followed this with a show at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Brixton.
We are currently on a trip through Lithuania and Russia to continue our research.
# 43 [24 March 2010]
At the opening of our Greatmore show, we meet long-lost relatives Stella Kitay and Eda Gawronsky, who are descended from brothers of our great-grandfather, Woolf. Stella had seen a picture of her grandfather Philip's tailor shop in Darling on our blog, a picture she has never seen before. She invites us for tea at her flat in Mouille Point, and we get a call from another Beinart descendant, Craig Meltzer who comes along too. In their light, artwork-adorned apartment we crowd around photographs, family trees, and documents, trying to figure out who is who. Yossi arrives, who is descended from Haidee, another Beinart sibling, and brings along an amazing document – it is the passport and 'alien registration' stamps of our great-great-grandmother Sora Beinart (nee Glick), who made the journey from Lithuania to South Africa in 1921, aged 75, with her grand-daughter Haidee in tow.
I try to imagine this old lady getting on a ship, leaving behind the place she has lived all her life, and departing for a new country, knowing she would be unlikely to ever see her home again. I think she must have been a strong and determined woman, to embark on that journey. I start to realise that some of the qualities I most admire about my ancestors are their courage to leave what they knew and start again, to make themselves alien, and (perhaps inadvertently) to open themselves up to new landscapes, to new influences, to learning.
As we near the ending of our residency, we decide to return to the site of arrival to make a new piece of work. I enter the immigration building at the docks, wearing a coat and carrying a suitcase. I go up to the 5th floor and talk to the man behind the grille. He examines my passport. I leave, and in the lift I am transformed into my new identity – my new suit. I belong, I have a place here. Identity Suit is about acceptance and unbelonging; about attempts to fit in, and how these attempts may be mis-read.
Carrying out this performance, I am acutely aware of both my freedom to remain or leave, and of the full circle, returning to the site of the beginning of our stay here. Perhaps beginnings and endings are not so dissimilar; a moment of leaping into the unknown, deciding what to leave behind and what we will take with us. And understanding that sometimes things are durational, they have a time-limited part in your life story, but that this does not make them any less valuable or easy to say goodbye to.
# 42 [24 March 2010]
For the exhibition at Greatmore, we decide to transform our studio into the cabin we spent 26 days in on the ship. It is an ambitious plan after the Stellenbosch show as we have less than a week to gather all the materials and install, but it feels like the right thing to do in this space. In some ways we have had a similar relationship with our studio as that we had with the cabin: it has been a home but also a place of confinement; it is stuffy and airless, we can never really control the atmosphere; it has been both enabling and limiting. We have occupied it and made it our own, but we also know that once we are gone this space will be moulded to the personality of its next occupant. It has been a space the two of us have shared, at times desperately wanting to escape each other, and at times dreaming up wonderful schemes together.
This particular scheme leads to another week of peculiar activities in the name of art. We build benches, upholster them in a wavy 1980s pattern, cover the walls in a drab beige fabric, and go on an unexpected adventure. Katy has tracked down some carpet tiles in an area called Grassy Park and we drive out there to find the guy who is wanting rid of them. We spend about an hour driving in circles around an area that goes from an industrial main road to rural fields, with tarred roads turning into dirt tracks, and grand houses rubbing up against shacks. Eventually we find the place and load the rather stained carpet tiles gratefully into the boot.
Then commences a day of laying carpet, covering the cupboards in fake wood veneer and adding all the details of our set. Halfway through this process I wonder what we’re doing… we work up until the last minute, literally finishing in time for the opening. But once we’re curtained off the installation and switched on some dim lamps, it suddenly works, and feels like a bizarrely accurate recreation of the cabin. People arrive and during the evening we spend a lot of time in there, sharing vodka, sourdough bread and stories with the visitors.
I am struck by the theatricality of what we have made. If you look closely it is a shoddy pretence, and yet people are willing to suspend their disbelief. For that night it was the cabin, and in a giddy state induced by exhaustion and vodka, I felt for a few hours like I was back on the Green Cape. Surprisingly, no one was seasick.
# 41 [16 March 2010]
The past week has been spent driving up and down to Stellenbosch in fierce heat, gradually assembling our extensive research materials, photographs, film, constructions and 2.5 tonnes of salt into an exhibition. On Tuesday, we picked up 8 enormous prints, photographs taken at Burgerspan, and gingerly transported them to the gallery. On Wednesday morning, 88 sacks of salt arrived and the day was spent shaking, raking and tidying it into a smooth plane covering the gallery floor. The light reflected off the salt is incredible, and the gradual shifts in colour and changes of shape as footprints appear make us want to stay there all day, just watching.
On Wednesday night we are up late, making bread, and I spill half the starter culture on the floor by accident. We talk about how perhaps this is a fortuitous event – the culture needed renewing, it had got a bit stagnant. Is this accidental loss of culture necessary to create the space for new culture to emerge? The next morning, we bake a second batch of bread and the texture and rising time has totally changed. Later that evening, before the exhibition opens, Kathryn Smith gives me a text called “Graft” by Colin Richards. He discusses the much overused idea of 'cross-cultural osmosis' and how in fact, the reality of historical cultural change in South Africa is much closer to grafting- that is, a violent and forced transition from one culture to another. In many ways, a residency is a graft. Its a sudden, intense period of hard work; a sudden adaptation to a new culture, climate and way of being. Grafts can be successful, but they can also fail. Maybe its a risk we take, as artists and humans, to experiment with mixing, forcing change – because it can also produce unexpected and wonderful results.
At the exhibition opening on Thursday evening, Kathryn reads a speech about our work which weaves together so many ideas and thoughts, from the genealogical to the botanical, and talks about the success of our 'marriage' as artists; that our collaboration has enriched both our practices, and we have carefully nurtured the relationship, allowing it to grow. I think she is right, this has been a slow grafting, a whole lifetime of working together and this time here has given it the opportunity to flower. We serve our bread and salt to the audience and explain the ritual of Khlebosolny – the blessing of bread and the salt as preservation of the blessing. One is nothing without the other.
Graft, Colin Richards, in 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Catalogue. 1997
# 40 [9 March 2010]
And we’ve been making some art…
The past three weeks have seen us teeter on the edge of endless hills of research and plunge dramatically into the raging sea of production.
Something strange happens when you’ve been developing ideas for a long time and then get to the point of making artwork. It’s like you have to forget everything, and start afresh with a different part of your mind. And you just have to trust that somehow parts of all that thinking and research will emerge through what you make. We’ve been gradually generating works throughout our time on the ship, and in Cape Town, but the intensity has increased of late. Recent weeks have involved hectic missions made all the more challenging by the extreme heat.
We spent 24 hours at Burgerspan making a film, camping overnight to make the most of the low orange early morning light and the coolest part of the day. Being there at night was incredible, we made a fire and watched the moon over the gleaming salt pan and it felt like another world. Shooting the film was a surreal experience; we set up the dinner table in the middle of the salt pan and made our offerings to the ancestors. We wore beautiful 1930s dresses, and it was silent apart from the sound of silk in the wind. We shot it on an old 16mm camera but a few days later, we discovered that the film didn’t come out. We have a digital back up that we’re using instead, but it doesn’t quite live up to our vision. There’s a lesson in there somewhere – either about making things in a hurry, or perhaps that ghosts just can’t be filmed.
We’ve been hunting markets and strange little shops for random objects, printing photos, arranging salt deliveries, designing images. I’ve made a handcart, with the help of the remarkable Doug, to conduct salt experiments. At the weekend I went for one final trip to the pans and tested out harvesting and preservation techniques with the cart.
And now, with three days to go before our show at Stellenbosch opens, we are taking stock of what we’ve generated. We could have easily spent the full three months researching and testing ideas, and now we have to draw a line and make some choices about what to show. It’s exciting to push ourselves to create something public, to distill our thinking, and to open up our work for conversation.
# 39 [8 March 2010]
I go round to Gail's to look at her collection of family photographs, and there in faded black and white is a photograph of Woolf, striding, no loping, down Darling street. It feels strange to see him caught off-guard, unposed, more real somehow. Gail tells me that photographers used to stand on the street and snap away, and then they'd stick the photographs up on the wall and you could come and buy the photograph of yourself. She remembers getting dressed up and being taken for “tea in town” at Stuttafords, or Garlicks, or Cleghorns, or Fletchers on Adderley Street, then going shopping. There is a picture of her as a little girl, proudly walking past the very same spot on Darling Street as Woolf, carrying her purchases and holding her mothers hand.
Seeing Woolf in this photograph feels like a moment of time-travel; I have passed the same spot myself so many times, it is like a glimpse into his life. He looks somewhat cross as if he has business to attend to and doesn't want to be interrupted, and he walks with a slight hunch, his oversized jacket hanging loosely over his hands. I feel like he is hiding something, perhaps he is ever an immigrant, unbelonging, trying not to be conspicuous. Gail tells me that the Beinarts came to South Africa earlier than I thought, around 1896, and they were escaping the pogroms. This heightens my sense of Woolf as a man watching his back, hiding from potential danger.
I am reading The Emigrants by W G Sebald, and I come across this passage: “Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” The photographs make me feel a little like this – giddy with the nearness and yet distance of my family, with these moments of almost catching them, but then feeling them recede again into the unknown.
The Emigrants, W G Sebald. Harvill 1996
# 38 [2 March 2010]
At a stall at Paarden Eiland market, I find some ink wells dating to the early 1900s, around the time Woolf Beinart would have arrived in South Africa. I start talking to the guy who runs the stall, who tells me that 5 million bottles of ink a week would have been produced around that time, disposable glass or pottery bottles stoppered with wax. He says the ink would have been made from gall nuts, growths on oak trees, mixed with iron salts. As the ink oxidised, it became darker.
The ink could only be removed from the paper by scratching off the layer of paper containing the ink, which made it suitable for writing Torah scrolls (the handwritten version of the Torah, the Jewish holy book). “If users find a letter to be cracked, common with text of a vellum document rolled and rerolled daily, a calligrapher must remove the letter in its entirety before it is redrawn, for the scroll to remain ritually pure.”
I think about Woolf's letters, and other family documents, postcards, recipes, scribbled notes. The words are faded but intact. I wonder how we will pass down our digitised, typed words, or if these will be lost and forgotten, a whole wordless generation. Tim Ingold writes of the loss of understanding of writing as a scribal practice; that we “fail to recognize the extent to which the very art of writing, at least until it was ousted by typography, lay in the drawing of lines”.
In the Dada exhibition at the National Gallery, I notice a piece of work by Willem Boshoff titled “Bangboek”. It is a series of tiny hieroglyphs and it reminds me of a religious text. Later I look up the piece and read that the translation of the title is ‘the book that is afraid’. Boshoff wrote it as a secret, silent protest to enforced military conscription during the apartheid era.
I wonder if it is the action of writing by hand that carries an intent, a strength of conviction that invests the words with meaning. Perhaps this is why our ancestors collected postcards, letters and written ephemera so preciously, not just for the words but for the action contained within the words, the physical gesture of scripting. I stop reading words; instead I trace the shapes of the letters, imagine the motion of the writer, and try to deduce the sensations they felt, try to get under their skin.
Tim Ingold, Lines, 2007, Routledge
# 37 [19 February 2010]
Cupid’s clues and the salt army
At Malmesbury Museum we interview Trevor Ringqvist whilst the museum’s curator translates between English and Afrikaans. Trevor remembers the Beinart shop but he doesn’t recall the salt pans in detail. He tells us about a man who’s father used to drive one of the trucks for the ‘Darling Salt Pans and Produce Co.’ His name is Cupid Peterson, and the curator calls him for us, to ask if he remembers which salt pans the company used. She is on the phone for a while, speaking in Afrikaans. Cupid tells her that he used to ride in the truck with his father, and they would visit many of the farms in the area – including Koekiespan and Burgerspan - to pick up salt harvested from the pans. But he said that the farm the Beinarts owned was called Vredefort and is further north, near to Berg River station.
We head out to Darling again, early on Friday morning. We visit the Bassons at Kiekoevlei and Bea kindly takes us out in the Landrover, to traverse the bumpy tracks between the farms. We revisit Koekiespan, and then go on to Burgerspan, where we see an even larger salt pan where hand-harvesting is still active. There are small mounds of salt lined up across the pan, like a marching army frozen under a spell. The place is beautiful, and we immediately feel that this is the location we want to use for our film. Katy uses a medium format camera to take a series of photographs for the installation we’re planning.
Bea takes us to visit the farmer at Burgerspan, who has found some old photo albums in the attic. Amongst collected portraits of Shirley Temple, and various family holiday snaps, these include a few pages of photographs of the working salt pans from 1943. They are amazing images: the dry crust of salt being broken up with shovels, a line of men barrowing it across the pan, and using a wooden contraption with a ramp to drop the salt down into large sacks. There’s a horse drawn cart, and white men in suits standing proudly in front of a large pile of salt. It’s unlikely that these are our ancestors, but it’s fascinating to see the harvesting process they used at that time.
Looking at the pictures later, I wonder how many people worked for the salt pan business. The working conditions look hard: being out in the glaring sun of the white pans all day and hauling heavy salt around. What effect does salt have on your skin if you are handling it every day? I wonder if Woolf and his partners actually had much to do with these physical sites. We meet up with Gail again and she is pleased that we’ve discovered the name of the farm that she'd been struggling to remember. She tells us that for her father, the salt business was really a sideline – the store was his main source of income. Over the past century, salt has fallen in price dramatically, as it has become increasingly mass-produced.
But here the aesthetic pull of the pans overwhelms faithfulness to history. We have become fixated on the salt pans as a site for our work, and they somehow seem to hold the key to the search we’ve been on. Perhaps it’s because they are at once very specific to our family’s story, but also places that belong to nobody, that feel timeless and untouchable. The salt pans constantly renew themselves, growing a new skin that erases clues from the past.
# 36 [19 February 2010]
We visit the Jewish cemetery in Malmesbury, and wander among the headstones, finding our great-grandparents Woolf and Gittel's graves covered in dust and fallen bark from the bluegums which tower overhead. We collect bark, twigs, earth and weeds from the grave; a plant is growing that is reminiscent of tarragon, a herb that originates from Southern Russia. I imagine the bodies of my ancestors containing seeds from their homeland, growing up through the red African earth. It is bakingly hot, and I shelter in a small derelict building at the entrance to the site and notice a line of stones which lead to the graves. I have a distant memory of being about 4, sitting in a hut in rural Transkei, and staring out at piles of white stones which marked the burial places of the village ancestors.
In the Suku of south-western Congo, ancestors are appealed to at times of crisis. The elder men go to sit on the graves at night, or at a crossroads. “The old men 'feed' the dead certain foods considered to be their favourite: particular kinds of forest mushroom and wild roots, palm wine, and sometimes even manioc, the Suku staple. A small hole is dug in the ground and the food is put into it. Communication with the dead takes the form of a conversational monologue, patterned but not stereotyped, and devoid of repetitive formulae. One speaks the way one speaks to living people: 'You, [such and such], your junior is ill. We do not know why, we do not know who is responsible. If it is you, if you are angry, we ask for forgiveness. If we have done wrong, pardon us. Do not let him die. Other lineages are prospering and our people are dying. Why are you doing this? Why do you not look after us properly?' The words typically combine complaints, scolding, sometimes even anger, and at the same time appeals for forgiveness.1”
Looking for traces of our family, I am reminded of Hilary Mantel writing about ghosts: “for some years I lived in Botswana and people there used to say that to see ghosts, you need to look out of the corners of your eyes”. 2 At Trevor's house in Malmesbury, surrounded by the possessions of his long-dead ancestors, I feel the presence of ghosts, as if they are holding him to ransom. I think about collecting, about our need to keep hold of artefacts as justifications of our own identity. In 'On Collecting', Susan Pearce writes that “heirloom material..is a kind of ancestor worship, where part of the point is to participate in the power which can flow from the mighty dead of one's own kin and partly, in a more limited sense, to enjoy the prestige which accrues from having ancestors at all”3
Perhaps the material objects are unnecessary, they are merely a conduit, a channel to keep the lines of communication with our ancestors open. Ghosts don't respond to the direct approach.
1. Igor Kopytoff, Ancestors as Elders in Africa, 1971
2. Hilary Mantel, Ghost Writing, 28th July 2007, The Guardian Newspaper.
3. Susan Pearce, On Collecting, 1995, Routledge
# 35 [18 February 2010]
In a junk shop in Observatory I find a painting which proclaims “Home Sweet Home”. I purchase it and take it back to furnish my room. I am starting to feel at home here, and its got me thinking about how you make a home, and whether a home begins to make you as well.
“Home..is supposedly a vessel for the identity of its occupants, a container for, and mirror of, the self”1 As migrants make home, they are also forming themselves, their new chosen identities, consciously using their home to reflect what they have chosen to keep, or leave behind, of their past homes. Daniel Miller writes about home as a process, a writing and rewriting of our personal narrative or biography.2
I notice the names of the informal settlements at the edges of town, on the front of the buses. Lost City, Panorama, and Sweet Home. I try to find out more about Sweet Home and discover:
“Sweet Home is an informal settlement that was originally a rubble dump in the Philippi farm area and is now home to approximately 12 000 people, with around ten people per home. It is still largely undeveloped in terms of access to water and electricity. Half of the community have no proper toilets and the other half share six families per toilet unit. Community leaders estimate that the unemployment rate is a shocking 70% and malnutrition and other social ills that go with poverty, pervade. Sweet Home is a community facing many social evils and although only a few kilometres from the wealth of the suburbs and city centre, most of the people who live there will never see the 'other side' of Cape Town.”3
The optimism of the name astounds me.
I ask Adelaide, our cleaner, about where she lives, and she describes her shack in Philippi as being about the size of our kitchen, 2 rooms for her and her 2 boys. It cost 4000R (about £400)she says, but she doesn't own the land.
We make another research trip to Malmesbury, and meet Trevor Ringqvist, who recalls our family's shop and says he has a photograph of the Darling Salt Pans and Produce Company delivery truck. We drive to his home, a dilapidated wonderland of overgrown jungle and two houses stuffed full with antiques. He lives alone amongst the relics of his family, the last one left. He sorts through piles of old photographs and pulls out a blurry image of a man standing by a truck, the logo clearly visible.
He tells us as he offers us a pomegranate from his tree that he can't manage the place any more, its too much to keep up.
I think about immigrants arriving in a new place with nothing, gradually making home, acquiring, accumulating. I wonder how many possessions in the average shack and how many possessions in Trevor's house. His house feels like a museum. The social action of ghosts creating an atmosphere of lost memories.
1Jonathan Hill (2009), Immaterial Architecture. Routledge
2Daniel Miller, Accomodating, in Colin Painter (2002), Contemporary art and the home, Berg Publishers
picture credit: Resource Access cc. http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/stats/CityReports/Documents/Informal%20Settlements/Annexure_2C__Sweet_Home_Photos_2722006122351_359.pdf
# 34 [9 February 2010]
Tiervlei, Lwandle and a bed called Home
Tuesday 26th January: Katy and I drive out to the N1 City Mall, a sprawling metropolis of warehouse buildings housing chain stores and fast food restaurants, next to the highway. I have boycotted MacDonald’s for my whole adult life, but today we enter the dreaded golden arches for, of all things, a community arts meeting. The oddness of the setting begins to make sense as Edwina and Sheila explain their project. The whole area where the mall now presides used to be called Tiervlei, but the 'coloured' residents were moved off this land by the Apartheid government in the resettlements of the 1950s. The area their community lives in is now called Ravensmead, but the older folk still call it Tiervlei. Edwina and Sheila are setting up a cultural centre in an attempt to keep the history of this place alive, and provide much needed space and activities for young people in the area. They give us a tour, pointing out a few old houses that still remain, and the course of the buried river and marshlands that people had to build on. They show us how the highway cuts the community in half, and tell us about the riots in the 1980s, when this was the main route from the airport to the rich white neighbourhoods. It’s a fascinating place, and a classic example of the systematic division imposed on people by apartheid. We have been invited by Edwina & Sheila to run creative workshops with different generations in Tiervlei, to make some artwork to help launch their centre in an old school building.
The following week, we go to the township of Lwandle, to visit the Migrant Labour Museum. This museum documents the migrant labour system and the hostels that started here in the 1950s, to house workers coming mostly from the Eastern Cape. The hostels permitted only employed men over 18 years of age, and their work meant that they would only go home for a few weeks per year. We are shown round by the curator, Lunga Smile. He is a fantastic guide, and he talks us through the displays, telling stories of overcrowding, divided families, and the dehumanising laws of the Apartheid system. We see some incredible photographs: David Goldblatt’s haunting images of workers queuing for the bus at 3am, to begin their 18 hour day; an image of a whole family occupying a bunk with another family on the bunk below them; a newspaper clipping from the 1980s showing a man proudly standing in his shack, smiling, accompanied by a derogatory article suggesting that the township bred disease. Lunga asked us to think carefully about how we represent Lwandle and it’s inhabitants in our own photographs.
The township that has developed around the old hostels now houses around 80,000 people, in converted hostels, houses and shacks. Conditions aren’t exactly luxurious, but there are no longer four families sharing one tiny room. Lunga takes us to see Hostel 33 – the one hostel that has been left in its original form, and we stand inside, trying to imagine how so many people lived together in this space. I am struck by what a luxury it is to have space and privacy. Mine and Katy’s concerns about having to share a room pale into insignificance.
Lunga asks each of us what ‘home’ means to us, and where it is. We discuss this for a while, thinking about the homes we grew up in, and the various places we call home now. He tells us about a book, ‘A Bed Called Home’ and ponders on whether the cramped bunks of the hostels were ever truly home for their occupants. For some people, Lwandle was never home, but always a temporary dwelling – a necessary but unwelcomed place. For others the hostels and then the township became home, and their children and grandchildren were born here. I think about the elderly people in Tiervlei, who will always remember the homes lost to them when they were forced to move. South Africa is scarred with memories of injustice, of forced ‘resettlement’ and appalling conditions for people of colour. But people in places like Lwandle and Tiervlei are proudly keeping their histories alive, not wanting the younger generations to forget how they came to be here, and the rights they have won through years of struggle.
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Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines themes of history, identity and place. Her practice is research based and site-specific, often evolving through a participatory process. She is currently doing a PhD in Research by Architectural Design at the Bartlett, University College London.
Rebecca Beinart makes transportable artworks, live works, and interventions into public space. Her research often takes the form of journey-making, and her artwork draws from the unpredictability of encounters with people and places. Her live works create conversational spaces, in which audience-participants are as much the makers as the viewers of a piece.