Saturday, 6 March 2010

Cape Town, Oral History, Museums and Artists

I have just returned from Cape Town, South Africa where I met with Sean Field, Pascale Neuschafer and Renate Meyer from the Popular Memory Centre, University of Cape Town. Their work disseminating oral history using film has resulted in a number of documentary films, which powerfully express the hard reality of life in Cape Town. They are exploring and implementing creative methods to disseminate their oral history archive, however, the old story of lack of funding is limiting some of their approaches. Through our discussions it became obvious that we share similar ideas and approaches to dissemination of oral history and my hope is that we can develop, a relationship which will prove beneficial to both the Centre for Popular Memory and the Duchas Archive.

While in Cape Town, I visited both the Jewish Museum and the District 6 museum. The Jewish museum has two sections, the first deals with the Jewish religion and Jewish Immigration to Cape Town. It tells the stories of families who came from Europe to Cape Town, many of whose descendants are part of the Jewish Cape Town community. The second section deals with the Holocaust and is a well thought through and ordered exhibition.

In contrast, the District 6 museum, which contains images, artwork, and artefacts from families forced out of the area, has a completely different atmosphere. While the Jewish museum is reminiscent of many western museums; the District 6 museum, on the other hand, is Africa. One’s eye is drawn to areas of interest, not alone on the walls but on the floor and towards the ceiling. Many museums, displaying the same number of exhibits would have a sense of being overworked not so in District 6. This may be because it reflects the intensity of living in District 6; the hustle and bustle of living in close quarters in a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood.

One of the most interesting pieces of work I found was an instillation in a small room; the walls were roughly plastered with ordinary household items barely visible beneath the plaster. It portrayed a profound sense of what has been lost, but also what is emerging from within the District 6 area. I found this a very strong piece of work, reflecting issues of memory and loss while raising questions of the future.

There have been a number of interventions by artists in the museum and this is reflected in the diversity of approaches used to engage with the stories of the area. The range of artist’s interpretations illustrates the diversity of experience of living and leaving District 6 while at the same time connection and recurring themes are present.

While I was in Cape Town a public art event, “Infecting the City” took place. A number of the interventions/installations dealt with Cape Town’s past, slavery, apartheid, current lack of employment, poverty. Seeing these works on the streets confirmed to me the strong role creative practitioners can play in disseminating the experiences of those who have lived through conflict and oppression.