On the pain of death

Antjie Krog gave the keynote address at the Goethe-Institut’s Über(W)unden Art in Troubled Times conference. This is an extract.

The first artwork [I want to discuss] is by an artist responding to a traumatic revelation at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the second, a sculpture by an artist dealing with her own personal trauma.

The truth commissioner spreads the photos on the table. He is reporting on the digging up of the grave of ANC commander Phila Ndwandwe.

When she disappeared at the height of apartheid, her family was told that she had eloped to Tanzania. It was only when a security force member asked for amnesty for her killing that her death and grave became known.

The photograph before the truth commissioner shows a slope of tamboekie grass, a wind-blue sky, some fresh soil. He says: “The amnesty applicant showed us the place — we dug — we found red topsoil mixed with black subsoil — then we knew there had been interference with the layers of the soil — and soon the spade hit something —

“?’She was brave, this one. Hell, she was brave,’ the amnesty applicant said, showing us where the hidden grave was. He whistled softly through his teeth as if admiring her for the first time. ‘She simply refused to talk.’?”

Next photo: the earth holding a bundle of bones. Delicately they are chiselled loose. Cigarette butts, an empty beer bottle. “?’It’s hard work, digging,’ the amnesty applicant said, as if to explain the presence of rubbish in the grave,” says the truth commissioner.

Next photo: a man in short sleeves puts the bones on a small piece of canvas next to the grave — like building blocks. A vertebra — the thin flattened collarbone — the skull has a bullet hole right on top. “She was kneeling,” said the amnesty applicant, “so we shot from above.”

In the photos: ribs. Breastbone that once held a heart. Her heart.

Next photo: a pelvis and around it blue plastic. An ordinary blue plastic shopping bag. “When he saw this the amnesty applicant suddenly remembered. ‘Oh yes, we kept her naked and after 10 days she made herself these panties.’ He sniggered. ‘Oh yes, she was brave.’?”

The luxury of grief

On television that night were the grieving parents of Ndwandwe. The mother who never knew whether her daughter might not still be alive broke down as she said: “I cannot bear the fact that all these years she was in a grave a mere 10km away from me and I didn’t know that. I didn’t feel that. My previous grief suddenly seems like such a luxury.”

It’s a peaceful weekday morning. As I ring the bell to the art gallery, the suburb comes to me in friendly domestic sounds of radio chatter and the hum of appliances. Someone suggested that I go and see the exhibition of artist Judith Mason.

Suddenly I find myself in a room — completely empty at first glance except for an ordinary wire coat hanger suspended in the middle. From it hangs a dress made of blue plastic — blue shopping-bag plastic. The pretty shoulder straps holding up a blue embroidered bodice — from the soft pleated empire line the skirt flows out light and carefree as if swaying in the soft morning breeze. As if in it a woman is moving — lithe and lovely. It is so exquisite — this soft, twirling, blue, delicately rustling dress, that I simply have to bend over. Kneel. Sit. Choke.

It is for her!

This dress is for her. The blue plastic panties of shame and humiliation have been transformed into this haunting blue salute of beauty.

From grief to beauty

Perhaps this is the only thing art can do — to try to transform pain into a kind of beauty so that one, at times, can live with loss.

(Mason made paintings of this dress, some of which hang in the Constitutional Court. Her dress floats light and lovely in the heat generated from the burning konkas (barrel) of memory while the hyenas of death scowl in the background.)

I am in Vladslo, West Flanders, standing in front of the sculpture group, Grieving Parents, by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz after World War I. I feel heavy, suddenly, looking at the two kneeling figures.

Grief has the hands of this father — one clenching the upper arm in rage, the other holding the ribs so that they do not burst with grief. Grief has the stone face of this father. Grief wears his pitiful shoes of stone.

Grief has the bowed head of the mother. Grief is wrapped in the stone cloak, which wears her down. Unable to lift a face to the world — arms and hands holding the chest where the blunt grater of grief shreds her, and shreds her. The upper lip and cheeks are set in the loneliest of stone.

Alone in sorrow

The grief contained in these two figures drenches my bones. I turn away, back into my life.

But as I am walking back across the killing fields of Flanders, I am puzzled by the fact that there is no contact between the grieving husband and wife. They are kneeling on two separate pedestals.

Nothing in their body language or in their design gives them any contact, as if to say: There is no succour to be found anywhere after the death of a child, not even (and perhaps especially not, I wonder) with one’s spouse. I find it odd. Surely, the death of a child is the one moment where a father and mother are equally involved and can comfort one another, because they both made and loved this child. I find the two parents hauntingly moving but I balk at the separateness of their grief.

Afrikaners have a well-known and much revered statue of three women expressing the grief emanating from the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer war.

The emaciated corpse of a little girl lies in the lap of an older, seated woman, sunken into sorrow, while a younger woman stands next to her, her hand on the older woman’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort, as she looks straight ahead, into the future.

This taught me from a very young age — we can comfort, we should comfort one another in grief, because of life. So I couldn’t understand why Kollwitz was saying with these two stone figures in grief a father and a mother are absolutely alone.

The most difficult loss
About seven years after this visit to Flanders, I reported as a radio journalist on the testimonies of apartheid victims before the truth commission. Many parents testified.

It was soon clear: the death of a child creates a grief unlike any other. The death of a child brings existential despair — parents feel scared, alone and incapacitated. Events that once brought families together, such as birthdays and holidays, become reminders of loss.

A grieving parent testified: “Immediately I noticed a trickle of blood on her shoulder as she was lying face down. I pressed her to the ground and counted to 10 waiting for this explosion. Nothing happened. I turned her over and she just slumped in my arms.

“I lifted my daughter up, felt for her pulse but my hand just sunk in her neck. I laid her down on her back, tried to close her eyes but they would not close. This is when the realisation really hit me that she was dead — I feel responsible and guilty. I have lived with that for the past 10 years.

“As Lindy’s father, responsible for her existence, I accepted the responsibility of raising and caring for her to the best of my ability — when our children become adults, and more than equal to their parents, that is when the battles all seem worth it and many of life’s mysteries seem to fall into place — but I and my wife have been robbed. Robbed of our own flesh and blood. Robbed of the most natural form of happiness that humans can experience — No longer do we hear the voice on the telephone — You see, sir, we were ordinary people, doing ordinary work, in our own ordinary and uncomplicated manner — so why did she have to die so young and by such violent means?”

We learn about the effects of grief on the body.

“I just had major surgery, which I trace as a direct result of the stress and trauma that resulted after the Heidelberg incident. It has been demonstrated that cancer of the colon results from tremendous stress. First my heart was ripped out and now half my gut. I am happy that you are well. The day you killed my child you ripped my heart out.”

Emotional pain, physical pain

It seems that the internalised grief felt by parents brings about a variety of serious illnesses. Some parents soon follow their children to the grave. So Kollwitz’s truth was illuminated repeatedly in the testimonies before the commission.

“My wife has told you her grief. She preferred to talk directly to the killers. My grief is different. I talk to you, Mr Chairman, as the person who decides on their amnesty.”

It seems that men and women grieve differently.

“My marriage has suffered irreparable harm. My wife suffers from extreme anxiety and nervous tension. We are both on constant medication.”

The differences and discrepancies in grieving often create resentment and there is a high divorce rate among grieving parents.

When Kollwitz came down the steps of her house in Berlin, she saw a man standing in the foyer and her husband in spasms of bewilderment. The man had come to tell them that their youngest son, Peter, had been killed in action on October 23 1914, right at the beginning of the war.

Searching for a memory

Two years after his death she was still trying to come to terms with it through her art. She made a drawing of a mother holding her dead son in her arms.

“I can make hundreds of similar drawings, without being able to approach Peter. I search for him and know that I could find him in my work. But everything I produce is so weak and unsatisfying.”

She planned to make a relief of Peter — stretched out in full length with the father at the one end of the body and the mother at the other. Then she changed it to Peter suspended above the parents, with his arms outstretched. Nothing really worked for her.

Then she started with the father, then abandoned him and started with the mother. For weeks she worked on the exhaustion of the shoulders, the back, the arms — slow and with difficulty. Then she took up the father again but stopped immediately: “I cannot do it.”

Then she transformed Peter into a figure of a German youth to accompany the slogan: Never again war. This generalisation also didn’t help her to find him.

Ten years after Peter’s death she decided to make two separate figures — first in clay and then carved in granite. She persevered through several mishaps and setbacks but, finally, on the evening before the work was finished, she could write in her diary: “In this evening in my work I have been fully with you, my son.”

This is an edited extract of Antjie Krog’s keynote address at the Goethe-Institut’s Über(W)unden Art in Troubled Times conference.

For more information go to: goethe.de/johannesburg

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