01.03 - 21.05.2023
In key respects, contemporary South African life is defined by intergenerational disjuncture. That’s partly an artifact of official periodisations – ‘born-frees,’ ‘the post-apartheid’ – that prematurely bracket the past and create social distance. It’s also the unavoidable result of a divided society. Every day, frustrated young people face down devastating inequality and limited opportunities against the backdrop of a warming world. Globally speaking, social media has taken its own toll on kinship ties, making it easier to criticise the perceived moral failings of our elders or children. Dismissive memes like “Ok Boomer” reduce complex conflicts to a set of buzzwords so predictable there are bingo cards, circumscribing the kinds of conversations we can have about collective responsibility, reciprocity and change.
Tell Me What You Remember, a joint exhibition by artists Sue Williamson and Lebohang Kganye at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a sensitive meditation on the promise – and limits – of intergenerational dialogue in South Africa. For both artists, the role of interpersonal communication in memory formation is a major thematic and a formal conceit, although they engage that question from distinctly different positionalities and generational vantage points. With a career spanning more than five decades, Williamson’s work has long maintained a focus on imperfect modes of relaying and reconstructing the past, from the transcripts of TRC hearings in Truth Games (1998) to the challenge of matrilineal transmission in recent video installations like What Is This Thing Called Freedom? (2016). As a white woman whose creative life is rooted in anti-apartheid activism, her practice has transformed with the country, locating memory variously in contexts of violence, resistance and, increasingly, loss.
By comparison, the ‘born free’ Black artist Lebohang Kganye looks for the generalisable in the particular, zooming in on her own family’s histories in order to comment on the wider implications of trauma and healing. Her sepia-toned installation Mohlokomedi wa Tora (2018) exemplifies this project by translating a montage of family photographs into three dimensions, with life-size images supported by scaffolding and illuminated by a rotating light. In subsequent pieces, this searchlight will be revealed as the beam from a lighthouse (a reference to the Kganye family name, which means light in Sotho). Here, as in much of her work, Kganye invites the viewer into a visual archive full of quiet moments, but never allows us to overlook how delicately that archive hangs together, how incompletely it is perceived, and how long the shadows are that it casts.
In her choice to connect these artists, curator Emma Lewis surfaces their shared interest in oral histories transmitted over time, provoking deeper questions around how best to tell stories about storytelling itself. Across her tight edit of two impressively diverse oeuvres, we are repeatedly asked to reflect on the form and meaning of individual acts of communication, a concept that, as media theorist John Durham Peters argues in Speaking into the Air (1999), can be loaded with unexamined assumptions about how sharing is intrinsically good for our talkative species and should be streamlined wherever possible. We imagine “that better wiring will eliminate ghosts,” Peters says , whether that entails refining a translation program or eradicating the slippages of understanding that occur between two face-to-face speakers. Some of these assumptions about communication carry over into the exhibition’s catalogue, where “the social, familial, and civic importance…of speaking of the past” is framed as the connective tissue of a healthy society and, generally, a worthy practice. That logic can lead to the conclusion that the right words, said in the right way, must be reparative, a fantasy that sidelines the problem of our historically unequal relations to speech and differentiated abilities to listen.
Taken together, however, Williamson and Kganye paint a muddier picture of communication as a site of inevitable failure. If the voice is a common thread in their work, so is the struggle to express: narrators are sometimes unreliable; facts contestable; generational gaps unbridgeable; albums full of absences, and the capacity to communicate, constrained. In Williamson’s That Particular Morning (2019), for example, meaning moves between people in fragments, as partial and unfinished as forgiveness. The film depicts a conversation between Siyah Mgoduka and his mother Doreen as they discuss the assassination of Siyah’s father, policeman Mbambalala Glen Mgoduka. To prevent him from testifying against his fellow police officers, Mgoduka was murdered alongside two other policemen and an informant in December 1989. That Particular Morning begins with Siyah struggling to speak. He reaches for words, falls silent, then tries again. Silence is as much a character in the film as mother and son, and it’s also a recurring theme of their conversation. Midway through, Siyah describes looking at his mother and wondering helplessly: What is she thinking about? Who has she been talking to for 30 years? His voice breaks as between them, that silence opens up again like a wound.
The essential unknowability of another person, like the inability to come into full contact with history, can be a hard pill to swallow. Yet, together Williamson and Kganye suggest somewhat more hopefully that failures of communication can also be moments in which we are forced to explore ways of connecting beyond knowledge, renouncing the dream of complete understanding. In this, their communion models a different vision of intergenerational dialogue, privileging process over product. In the end, the exhibition’s title beautifully condenses that sentiment. “Tell me what you remember” could be a command or a plea, an invitation or an instruction. It is what police officers demand of witnesses and what children ask of parents, an open-ended call to feel our way back into history without any guarantee of smooth passage nor, indeed, any certainty about what we may find.