Art Of Truth And Forgetting

Television Sophie Perryer

WE might have made the giant leap of faith into the new South Africa, but it was on everyone’s lips this week that the sins of the past should not be forgotten. While opposing members of the government debated the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, artist William Kentridge translated his concern with “the speed at which things disappear” on to the screen, with the release of his new animated film, Felix in Exile.

Kentridge, who described his modus operandi in an NNTV documentary by Beata Lipman of Free Filmmakers, found a vehicle for themes of loss, disappearance and forgetting in an “unexpected connection” between figures and landscapes. The landscapes around Johannesburg, said Kentridge, are nondescript, owing all their features, like the mine dumps, “to events, and to people”. Thus Kentridge’s figures, bodies which have fallen victim to the violence of South Africa’s past, lie bleeding, the passive occupants of landscapes, until papers whipped up by a wind cover them and they disappear into — and simultaneously become distinguishing features of — their surrounds.

Kentridge delights in his medium — South African landscapes are themselves like drawings; crunching through the dry grass to him is “charcoal on the hoof”. More importantly, art provides a way of recording and interpreting history, acknowledging that while we have moved forward, our roots remain planted in the past.

For a group of children living and working on Guatemala City’s municipal rubbish dump, art — and specifically photography — has provided an invaluable means of expression in the midst of poverty and violence. Opening Shot, NNTV’s excellent Channel Four arts programme for young viewers, told in a two-part series of how an American photojournalist, Nancy McGirr, set up a project to teach them photography; the astonishing results have ended up on exhibitions, given the children a measure of financial independence — and a route out of the dump.

One of the group, Rosario Lopez, wrote in her diary: “The truth is, I’m always having dreams about things that will never come true.” McGirr explained that when she started her project, “they wanted to do things like mop floors and work at check-out counters”. Now they’ve got more self-confidence — “they’re spunky”.

With titles like Barefoot Children Stand in Front of Walls Made of Flattened Tin, The Gluesniffers, and The Day We Found the Dead Body in the Dump, the photographs enable the children to bypass verbal articulation but still comment on, and elicit responses to, issues like poverty, drug abuse and violence. “It’s something they can use to speak with,” said McGirr.

It’s about remembering, too. Adelso Ordonez’s mother told of how the family “had problems with Adelso’s dad. He used to throw things around, to break them.

“Adelso was very angry, furious, and one day he said: ‘I’m going to take a picture so that we can keep it as a reminder’.”

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