- The exhibition Sounding the Land attempts to mine a sliver of that history to better make sense of the present
- The show zeroes in on the history of the 1820 Settler colonial project through an ongoing, multimedia project between institutions including UCKAR, Fort Hare, and the National Arts Festival ‘Welcome to Frontier Country’ says a sign on the side of the road as you navigate the potholed route to Makhanda.
- Visual artists, journalists, musicians, and academics all lend their modes of interpretation to the body of work
‘Frontier Country’, like the formerly-named Grahamstown and its colossal 1820 Settler’s Monument (where the National Arts Festival has its headquarters), is a stubborn bit of settler history that still characterises much of the Eastern Cape. This year’s vNAF exhibition Sounding the Land attempts to mine a sliver of that history to better make sense of the present.
It’s a vast and multi-faceted body of work that zeroes in on the history (and enduring faultlines) of the 1820 Settler colonial project through an ongoing, multimedia project between UCKAR, Fort Hare, the NAF and more. Visual artists, journalists, musicians, and academics all lend their modes of interpretation to the body of work. This is particularly exciting to see as, in addition to researchers and academics, it is the work of writers, artists, and interdisciplinary outfits that are being used to puzzle out and interpret the complex and cryptic recesses of South African history in alternative ways.
In Button Without a Hole, a 30-minute film that formed part of artist Simon Gush’s 2019 exhibition Welcome to Frontier Country, an intricate history of the small town of Salem is told by way of Gush’s own ancestry – Richard Gush was an original settler of Salem – as well as the insights of lifelong resident Mongezi Madinda. Two churches and what claims to be the oldest cricket ground in South Africa are the main built-up features of the town and play significant roles in the complicated issue of land restitution in Salem. The 1820 Settler’s Monument in Makhanda, and a brief history of the mythology built up around Richard Gush by scholars and writers such as Guy Butler, also feature in the film. Through narration by Gush, interviews with Madinda, and strong, considered visuals, the film puts forward a brief, but well-articulated navigation of the area’s history and its ongoing land restitution claims, with asides on the nature of labour and land ownership.
Button Without a Hole is beautifully scored by Andrei van Wyk aka Healer Oran who, through the 40-minute work Pine and Willow unpacks his use of sound in Gush’s work, as well as his own exploration of his family’s dispossession and forced removal from their land in 1970s Port Elizabeth.
Ubuyile uNxele is a short, sharp and engaging spoken word piece detailing the life and death of amaXhosa prophet and struggle icon Makhanda Nxele, while Confinement / Containment / Contagion attempts to draw interesting parallels between the history of disease and confinement in the area, and the current health crisis. There’s also an essay by journalist Niren Tolsi that contextualises the past and present of Salem and engages with the area as something of a microcosm of greater South Africa.
While Sounding the Land was intended to be showcased in person at this year’s NAF, I can’t help but think that the general pace and atmosphere that so often characterises the NAF would have all but drowned out any meaningful or sustained engagement with the works that make up this project. Having Sounding the Land available to view online, then, is a useful format through which to engage, at one’s own pace and over a number of days, the complex and fascinating passages of history being excavated in these various works.
View Sounding the Land here.
This article was first published by The Critter.