into the rooms that held us
and the roof that covered
Dust clouded our vision
We held back tears
It was over in minutes,
Bulldozers have power.
They can take apart in a few
all that had been built up
over the years
and raised over generations
and generations of children
The power of destroying
the pain of being destroyed,
Mandy Conidaris and Kevin Sneider
During a lengthy conversation that we held with Malcolm Christian around remembrance, history and legacy, predominantly to do with the significance of the loss of Gabi Nkosi to her community and the Caversham family, certain more universal topics arose. We discussed how, after the death of someone close, the most difficult things to dispose of are the familiar and mundane, a toothbrush, a razor … Malcolm commented how one’s small intimate objects “hold the smell, feel, part of who we are, all emotions, all potential, all history” (interview 11 April 2011).
Like Emma Willemse, Zyma's artwork deals with the effects of displacement in her artwork, in her case the displacement of her Grandfather, firstly from District Six, and again from Lansdowne. Extending Malcolm’s comment into the displacement experience of Zyma’s Grandfather, we must ask, what could hold our history, along with the potential for the future, more than our homes, our intimate spaces, the places of gathering? Zyma’s catalogue essay as well as her interview with us (‘in conversation’) describes the effect that the displacements had on her Grandfather, but subsequently caused in her too.
We first negotiated with Zyma to exhibit her video The day they came for our house (2011) in November 2012, and then met again in January 2013. In the interim, Zyma had had chance to reflect on the significance of exhibiting the video, and as said in the introduction, an insistent question kept pushing itself forward: ‘who does this film really belong to?’ the artist? the family who filmed it? the community displaced by the forced removals? the country? It provokes an interesting debate that has been addressed before.
In the Introduction of his book At memory’s edge: after-images of the Holocaust in contemporary art and architecture (2000), James E Young put forward the problems that faced the City of Berlin in their process of commissioning an appropriate national monument to the European Jews killed in World War II. He had some insight as he was a member of the selection committee. Without drawing direct comparisons between the Holocaust and the District Six displacements, there are still certain common issues. As Young presents them (200:7), we lay them out here without answers, to trigger a response in you:
- • How does a state incorporate shame into its national memorial landscape?
• How does a state recite, much less commemorate, the litany of its misdeeds, the very reason for the existence of the memorial?
• Under whose rules does a nation remember its barbarity?
• How do former persecutors mourn their victims?
• How does a nation reunite itself on the memory of its crimes?
These are questions that are relevant to all regimes that violently imposed an ideology onto some of its citizens. The question unasked in this section lies around the issue of payment for the creation of the memorial: the probably idealistic view of how much should an artist/architect gain from such a project. This question will open Pandora’s Box!
During our January discussion with Zyma, she was adamant that there could be no commercial aspect to the showing of her film on outoftheCUBE, that it belonged to previous, current and future generations as a tangible memory of the events. She felt that she (and we) had no right to benefit financially from such a project. She wished to exhibit the film, as it had been the catalyst for a more-encompassing exhibition (see her catalogue); but ultimately she sees it as a kind of legacy, and would wish it to live in a cultural museum. We agreed.
In our conversation, Malcolm affirmed the inherent human call for “historic markers that are relevant, that you are able to go back to, almost like a touchstone”, and that one needs “the ability to take that [touchstone], and add to its layers the fact that legacy is not a static thing but is a dynamic thing; and that how we reflect on that legacy … is with our perception, our understanding, our experience, our knowledge – and all of these things mean we see differently as years pass.”
Young asks, “Can the historian ever really know the history of an era without knowing its art and literature? … without understanding how the artists and writers of that time grasped and then responded to the events unfolding around them? … and how well can historians represent the past without knowing how the next generation has responded to it in its art and literature?”
Although Zyma’s family had not intended the video to be a visual artwork – it was at that point just one form of recording and documentation – with her lived history of witnessing the impact of the displacements on her Grandfather, the video eventually triggered a strong enough response in Zyma to create a body of artwork.
A question asked in an interview with Colbert Mashile was ‘what makes one piece of information resonate strongly enough with an artist to produce a creative response?’ Many artists will tell you that, once they were alert and open enough to their responses, a seemingly tiny trigger initiated months of work (See Colbert’s ‘read more’ bar in his outoftheCUBE exhibition in our archive). In his presentation A Point of Departure (‘in conversation’), Tony Bingham states that inspiration often comes from a familiar mundane object where suddenly, something provokes a shift in our perception towards it. This causes a more detailed investigation into its physicality and what it could stand for - the larger narratives. In Zyma’s case, this was her Grandfather’s fez as seen in Dispirited (2011), Unravelled (2011) and the award-winning Zigzag unpatterned (2011) (figs 23 – 26, catalogue).
An intense period of creative activity followed, in which Zyma researched the idea of displacement and the work of other artists, looked at the significance of the events in her community in general and then in her Grandfather’s life, and finally made artwork that explored the poignant symbols of his lost identity - making art of memory.
Young finally suggests that “memory-artists may lead the next generation of historians to a more refined, if complex kind of history-telling, one that takes into account both events and how they get passed down to us.”