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Memories – what they mean and how they are made, what different perspectives add to them or how they are broken down, and how they influence our thought processes – have emerged strongly in different productions crossing the genres at the National Arts Festival.
Standard Bank Young Artist Mikhael Subotzky’s body of work titled Retinal Shift comprises different sections but the one dealing most obviously with memory is a four-channel film that almost works like theatre in the round.
He has taken two Grahamstown men, one, Moses Lamani, an employee at the 1820 Settlers National Monument, and the other, Griffiths Sokuyeka, at the Observatory Museum in Grahamstown itself. They are both guides who, on two of the films, give their official lecture on their respective buildings (narrow accounts of local history focusing on the English Settlers).
In the other two films they recount their personal memories of these particular buildings, both with very specific historical backgrounds.
The artist switches the volume from one film to the next as he wants to move your focus to experience a particular conversation and listen to the stories told both in official and personal context, producing a different and much more accurate and embracing history. For too long in this country, certain narratives have simply been ignored and when these are included as part of the conversation, it is a different story.
Also drawing on memory, Third World Bunfight’s Brett Bailey, who keeps functioning as our conscience, goes back in time to produce Exhibit A, which was originally made for European audiences to confront them with a history that’s been hidden and forgotten. Human zoos, says the programme notes, were major events from the mid-19th century up until World War II. Classifying “natives” as “primitives” of a lower evolutionary order, these findings were used to legitimise seizing their land, destroying their culture and reducing them to servitude.
Bailey’s talent is how he breathes life into these histories, takes you into the heart of darkness but then also links it to the present. Audiences wander individually through a series of darkened rooms each with an exhibit, the one more horrific than the next, but presented in a way that doesn’t allow you to turn or walk away.
From King Leopold’s plundering in the Congo to the attempted annihilation of the Herero and Nama in the then German South West Africa, these atrocities are showcased in an evocative, terrifying, manner in the museum setting, which has the effect of something almost frozen in time. In one room, he has pictures of the decapitated heads of three men; it was done for anthropological reasons. In front, four men are arranged like museum exhibits in a manner that shows only their heads, mirroring the pictures behind them. They are singing haunting traditional songs of lamentation in indigenous languages (trained by Marcellinus Swartbooi) that further pierce your heart.
“I always take them with me as part of the exhibition wherever it travels,” says Bailey and one can understand why. Exhibit A is a searing indictment of what man does to man. Bailey believes that it will be viewed differently depending on the memories, and in SA who you are will also influence your response.
Being Bailey, he doesn’t leave it in the past, but brings it close to home with a coloured woman whose family was torn apart during the 1950s with racial classification when her parents were judged on different sides of the colour line.
He also points to “found objects”, the migrants from the continent that find themselves in precarious circumstances as they travel in search of survival.
With live people recreating the horrors of the past, their eyes grip yours as you enter the room and never let go. It’s pure Bailey as he manoeuvres our memories while reaching for the past yet firmly steering it to the present.
Athol Fugard is celebrating his 80th year with a new play, which was gifted to Grahamstown to premiere at the festival. These are gentler memories of a more intimate kind as three people, a husband and wife and the woman who first grew up on the farm and then took over from her mother who worked for the household, tell their stories from three perspectives.
How we experience life will have much to do with our expectations, which will change how we perceive our different relationships. A man might, for example, think that he has imposed a hardship on his wife, but interpret her actions as something different. His memories introduce a kindness and thoughtfulness that perhaps wasn’t there.
To discover these inaccuracies in your memory bank when it is too late to change things can be devastating. These are some of the notes on the scale of this Fugard chamber piece, which is strongest for the author’s very particular dialogue, which has an earthiness and a clarity that evokes both memories and belonging, as well as the performances by the trio of Graham Weir, Lee-Ann van Rooi and Claire Berlein as they share their stories that come from a similar place but are shaped by their individual longings.
Janice Honeyman plays this one with a delicate hand and while the storylines sometimes seem to drift across one another, this isn’t what The Blue Iris is about. Looking back, Fugard is writing from a different perspective as he tries to catch hold of the memories and the moments that make individual lives – and those will differ and possibly in some instances destroy.