A sense of place is clear as quartz. We remember places as in a vivid dream: down on my haunches, maybe even prone; the earth is very close to my face. Red, crumbly, slightly damp earth which clumps into clay-ish balls if you squeeze it. The vision has a smell, of rain, which is warm because it falls in the summer months; the steamy smell of rain evaporating fast from the red earth.
WORDS: JACQUELINE FLINT
PHOTOGRAPHY: BLANK GALLERY
This is the place in which I grew up. I haven’t actually lived there for a very long time – close to half my life. And yet the visceral, sensual realness of it is powerful enough to produce daydream hallucinations, if I am in a wistful mood.
Spatial politics are the politics of our time. Writing about the land as a white person in South Africa is very tricky. How dare I have such a longing and a love for a land that was probably appropriated by my ancestors from the ancestors of my peers with a viciousness, the aftermath of which is palpable even in our current climate of reform? And yet I do because, as Dirk Klopper has put it, ‘Memories may accumulate in the passage of time, but they are fixed in a spatial way, through relations of association rather than of chronology. To pursue memories is to re-enter the situations in which they arose, their inter-leading locations.’
For the last few hundred years – in this country and the entire Global South – people have been displaced by processes and systems imbued with inherent violence. Being systemic, the distancing effect of Imperialism, with a hefty dose of Capitalism mixed in for good measure, is internalized over generations. In the South African context, apartheid is the Imperial impulse on steroids and, although democracy has prevailed, the legacy of the system exists in the defensive and exclusive spatial planning of our cities. The distancing effect of that, over decades, is severe enough to sever current generations from the very language of their forefathers.
Bronwyn Katz addresses these displacements through sculptural works made from deconstructed, salvaged beds – pieces of foam, the internal springs, floral and blemished quilted fabric. She combines these fundamentals with other bits and pieces that she accumulates in whatever place she happens to be working and laying her head down to rest. These places have so far included Kimberley, where she grew up; Cape Town, where she studied at Michaelis; Joburg, where she has found a for-now home, working out of the Bag Factory studios; Amsterdam, where she spent some time in residence, based in the south-east of the city surrounded by members of the city’s African diaspora; and Paris, where she was in a fancy place, and felt the minority experience.
The presence of a bed is the most certain indication that someone has taken a place and made it a home.The bed is a repository of memory that, when sliced into cross-section, mimics the land – topsoil rich in organic matter, spirals of metal below the surface.
In Katz’s work, it is the land on which people birth, die, dream, fuck. The landscape (as bed) stands for a state of being, but is also instrumental in the formation of our understanding of what it means to be – as individuals existing within communities whose histories have played out on and been informed by the territories that we call home.
Katz’s political framework provides a solid critical foundation from which to spring, an ever-present undercurrent through all her work. However, her politics are not overt in the sculptures themselves. Instead, she has found a way to bring the politics home (if home is also where the heart is) by feeling her way through places and responding intuitively to raw material. Although she moves freely between Cape Town, Johannesburg and Kimberley, it is the former diamond mining town that Katz considers home. As it turns out, diamonds are not the only commodity to be mined from the depths of the Northern Cape – the area is also rich in iron ore, and heavy rocks of it litter the yard of her family home. Katz is at ease with metal – something she owes to her father, who worked as a welder when she was growing up and is now involved in the iron ore mining industry. Katz is currently set up in the garage of her parents’ home, putting together a new body of work for an exhibition at blank projects in Cape Town in early 2019.
In her most recent sculptures – most significantly in the work she produced for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris – Katz’s formal language is that of drawing. The spatial compositions created with wool-wrapped wire, wire-wrapped stones, or floating discoloured discs of foam, indicate a three-dimensional understanding of the drawn line. She has pared her language down over time, and the resulting abstraction invites a meditative approach to both the creation of the work, and the experience of it. For her new body of work, her engagement with iron ore as a resource has led Katz, via her intuitive process, to consider the language of her ancestors. Although her home language is Afrikaans, Katz’s family descends on the paternal side from the Korana people, whose language is !Ora – a language which is totally lost to Katz
For this body of work, Katz taps acutely into the role of language in memory formation. Armed with neither a denotative understanding, nor a sense of the phonetics, Katz’s engagement with the written !Ora language is like going down a mineshaft without a headlamp. Like this, written language is open to interpretation in the same way that drawing is. Katz has chosen to bring in collaborators on this project in the form of a linguist and a violinist – for the etymological and emotional strata these practitioners can add to the multi-dimensional approach. Although the sculptures themselves are still very much in progress, they are already undertaking to indicate the morphology of the language, and a visual representation of Katz’s instinctual engagement with both language and the land of its original narrators, long since displaced.