Alien Registration

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.

Katy Beinart


Cabin Fever

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.

Rebecca Beinart


Hard Graft

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.

Katy Beinart


Graft, Colin Richards, in 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Catalogue. 1997


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.


Photographic Memory

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.

Katy Beinart


The Emigrants, W G Sebald. Harvill 1996