The (re)appearance of Andries Botha

2007-10-27 00:00

In January this year Andries Botha's father died. He was born in Molteno in the Karoo, and Botha had always wanted to make the journey there with him. This was the year that they had planned to do it.

Botha made the journey anyway, packing some of his father's things on the passenger seat, as if he was there, and headed for Molteno.

“So I started to have this wonderful conversation, literally, talking to him on the way … I didn't quite know where he was born … and neither did he, and I'm sure anyway the town's changed enormously since he was there.”

But on the way to Molteno, Botha came across a farmhouse with a marker that read “belonging to the Kruger family”. Botha says it was important that the place had been a home to people. And equally important that the skeletal remains of this home remain on the landscape, “almost like it had marked the landscape”.

One of Botha's central concerns is how we, and the history we carry with us, impact on the land. And it on us. He talks about a piece he did once in which he conflated the surface of the body and the land. “I kind of conflated the two, and I said land and body is one thing; and we are indivisible from the place in which we live.”

He talks emphatically about how it is the smallness of our experience, where we jol, what we do, the people we remember, that impacts on how we shape our understanding of who we are and the land which we occupy.

Botha spent quite a lot of time at the site near Molteno and began to remember the smaller, more intimate narratives about things that they had said. “Then I began to think about the father-and-son narratives, and how important the masculine narrative was, especially in South Africa, where [it] appears to be so absent from shaping or being able to shape because of the burden of history. Maleness is so beleaguered right now … that the over-completed and the incompleteness of the narrative has entirely disoriented it.

“And it's also fair to say that the trauma in the land is commensurately related to the disorientation of the masculine narrative.”

And thus, from the personal to the historic, Botha saw a very close linkage mechanism.

Beginning in the interior space, he began to reflect on how he could pay homage as a son to a father.

The exhibition is called (dis)Appearance(s). And although this relates perfectly to the body of work on display, he must be aware that the title will also be taken as ironic expression of the fact that this is his first major exhibition in Durban in 15 years. But the work is far more of an elegy for his father, than it is any attempt to provide a stopgap for one-and-a-half decades.

With the Molteno meditation as a starting point, Botha began to notice neglected narratives on our landscapes. He began to pay attention to ordinary things, like the Magoos Bar, which now looks like an ordinary hotel, but was once bombed in the 80s, injuring many. (And it says something about our (re)construction of history that Robert McBride is now more well-known as a recalcitrant police chief than as the Magoos bomber).

Botha continues along the wall of the gallery, the wall of neglected histories, history's neglect.

The drawings, almost in the style of a Victorian anthropologist, include Norvalspont Concentration Camp; the Battle of Congella Memorial; the Jacobs Concentration Camp; the Amanzimtoti Shopping Centre where Andrew Zondo killed five people with a bomb; the house in which Rick Turner was assassinated and the Umlazi Cycle Stadium where the mutilated body of Griffiths Mxenges was dumped by apartheid agents.

Botha talks about the fact that he's Afrikaans and many of the sites are part of the Boer narrative. But, “it's just coincidental”. He emphasises that he didn't want there to be an obvious linkage between “the Afrikaans thing and his work”.

“But these things … are so intrinsically part of who we are … irrespective of whether that historical narrative impacts directly … , because it is integrated into the zeitgeist of who you are, you need to carry that with a certain amount of respect … it's part of the whole tapestry.”

He looks at the image of Norvalspont. “The landscape is clearly marked. All the stuff that's fallen into it, it's not just a normal landscape. But it's completely unmarked and uncared for - this idea of unloved things, as opposed to things that are remembered and loved only momentarily because they suffice a momentary political expedience - people kind of get hyped about it and then they forget. I'm talking about a different kind of nurturing, where small things are just ordinarily nurtured. I think that's important.”

But these markers of history, these sites of former terror, are often vandalised and in states of extreme disrepair, all notion of nurture absent, particularly the sites of Boer struggles.

“The Afrikaans are so big about ‘ons dinge',” says Botha, “but they don't give a shit about these things. They just let them go.”

Maybe they don't want to, I suggest.

“That's also a very interesting thing. But the political thing is so overtly about wanting this identity and looking after it and being beleaguered. They should pay closer attention to the smaller things.

“I think younger Afrikaans people don't know how to deal with this stuff. And I think that's why drawing attention to it once again is to say to people ‘how do you feel about this stuff?'.”

Each of the drawings is accompanied by an A4 piece of paper, with one of the original source photographs and directions to the site, a history of the site and details of the deaths on the sites.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Botha provides abstracted objects from the interior of his house, documenting his light switch; his fan control unit; his blender.

They have been painstakingly repeated by embroiderers whom Botha credits equally for the work.

“Simple banal objects given a lot of attention, become quite iconic, which I find quite interesting”.

In counterpoint to the small, detailed work, are two large large-scale sculptural works that occupy the centre of the gallery.

They are the kinds of work for which he has become famous - blending the broad brush strokes of history with an intimate specificity.

Considering that even our recent history is in the process of evaporating in our minds and hearts, it is appropriate that Botha has created the exhibition with the central audience in mind - high school kids.

Botha has self-published a short booklet on the exhibition with four writers contributing essays on history and memory.

For him, it is important that we learn to re-engage with history, that we acknowledge, as individuals and as a society, the importance of remembering.

Especially, he says, because young people are absorbing “all this international global stuff” but know very little of our own narrative.

And it is to his credit that his work does help us to remember, drawing us into a past that lurks underneath our own skin, even if we have no idea that it is there.

•(dis)Appearance(s) runs until November 22 at Bank Gallery, 217 Florida Road, Durban.

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