I have been very busy lately cleaning a window: a window at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town which has an unexcelled but sad view over the slopes of District Six, still largely bare and unpopulated more than 30 years after the homes of 60,000 people were demolished by the apartheid government and the residents moved out.
Usually this window at the Goodman is covered by dry walling, but for my recent show at the gallery, ‘The Past Lies Ahead’, the window was uncovered again, and a new window, constructed of Perspex set in a wooden frame, was installed in front of the old.
On this, my proposal was to engrave a view recapturing what might have been seen had one stood there in the 60s. So, I planned to record the old buildings which still stood, mainly churches and mosques and schools, along with those hundreds of cottages and terrace houses which had been destroyed.
As far as was possible, I worked from old archival photos of the district, first engraving, then inking up the areas with etching ink, and finally cleaning the ink from the surface, so that only the ink in the lines remained. I used a tin of ink I discovered in my studio, dating from the 80s and made by the incomparable T E Lawrence of London. The lid had rusted over, but the ink inside the tin was as black and buttery as ever. Breathing in the rich oily aroma as I cleaned reminded me of the unique pleasures of printmaking.
Standing at the window through many different weathers, trying to reconstruct that vanished landscape, many visitors to the gallery came up to me to chat, and recall their memories of District Six, or asked me what exactly I was doing. I enjoyed these encounters. As an artist, one so seldom knows what the reaction of visitors to a gallery really is, or if they understand what one is trying to do.
Tomorrow, the engraved window will be taken out of the wall and the dry walling replaced, to make way for the next exhibition. Such is the nature of installation. Like a theatrical production, it is up for a while, then taken down, to remain in that place only in memory.