Re­veal­ing the bones that un­der­pin our sense of iden­tity and mor­tal­ity

• Film cham­pi­ons re­spect and dig­nity for the liv­ing and the dead

Business Day - - LIFE - Lucinda Jolly

Since the ear­li­est com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple formed, the hu­man skull and bones — with their im­pli­ca­tion of mor­tal­ity and eter­nity — played an im­por­tant role in hu­man­ity’s cul­tural, spir­i­tual and artis­tic lives.

Skulls have the power to at­tract and re­pel, of­ten si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The ear­li­est ex­am­ple of art in­volv­ing a hu­man skull is the Jeri­cho skull from the Ne­olithic pe­riod, found in mod­ern Pales­tine. Us­ing plas­ter to sug­gest fea­tures and shells for eyes, it is thought to have been part of an­ces­tral wor­ship.

Western paint­ings are pep­pered with images of skulls. They are present in me­dieval icons to sym­bol­ise the realms of hell, in the 16th-cen­tury tra­di­tion of van­i­tas sym­bol­is­ing life’s im­per­ma­nence, and in most ma­jor art move­ments.

The treat­ment of hu­man re­mains is of­ten an in­di­ca­tion of a so­ci­ety’s re­gard for the liv­ing. In in­hu­mane sys­tems such as slav­ery, colo­nial­ism and apartheid, hu­man be­ings were re­garded as use­ful but highly ex­pend­able be­ings.

Some of the ear­li­est recorded in­ci­dents in SA of the ap­pro­pri­a­tion and mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of hu­man re­mains oc­curred in the 19th cen­tury. Xhosa King Hintsa kaKhawuta’s skull was taken to Bri­tain as a tro­phy of tri­umph dur­ing the fron­tier wars.

Sara Baart­man was taken to Europe un­der false pre­tences to be put on dis­play as an odd­ity. After her death, her skele­ton and body cast were dis­played at Paris’s Mu­seum of Man and re­moved only in 1974.

And the bod­ies of Klaas and Trooi Pien­aar, a Khoisan cou­ple, were il­le­gally taken to Europe to be stud­ied. Over the past few years their re­mains have been repa­tri­ated from Europe and given proper buri­als. Many coun­tries have now banned the trade in hu­man re­mains.

Artist and film­maker Penny Siopis, whose work in­cludes the short film, Lay Bare Be­side (2015) and the os­suary at the Prest­wich Place Me­mo­rial in Green Point, Cape Town, pro­duces work that re­flects a cu­rios­ity with paint as ma­te­rial, found ob­jects, mem­ory as mat­ter and the pol­i­tics of the body.

Os­suar­ies are places where skele­tal re­mains are kept, of­ten due to in­suf­fi­cient burial space. It is thought that the Zoroas­tri­ans of Per­sia were the first to use them about 3,000 years ago. Os­suar­ies are all over Europe. The Prest­wich os­suary was not cre­ated be­cause of in­suf­fi­cient space, but be­cause an agree­ment be­tween var­i­ous par­ties about where the re­mains should be housed was dif­fi­cult to reach.

Former Cape Town mayor No­main­dia Mfeketo said the me­mo­rial was a pledge to “cre­ate a fit­ting mem­ory” for the slaves who built Cape Town.

Green Point was a colo­nial burial ground with many un­marked graves.

Be­cause re­search on the re­mains is for­bid­den to pre­vent fur­ther vi­o­lence to the bod­ies, the iden­tity of the in­di­vid­u­als un­earthed there is un­clear. The bones are be­lieved to be the re­mains of slaves, other black peo­ple and wash­er­women.

The re­mains — be­tween 180 and 270 years old — were dis­cov­ered dur­ing the con­struc­tion of op­u­lent apart­ments in Green Point. They are now stored in 2,500 plain card­board boxes sim­i­lar to those used to store skele­tal re­mains at re­search in­sti­tu­tions — on shelves be­hind locked lou­vre doors.

While Siopis has never vis­ited the Prest­wich Place Me­mo­rial os­suary, she un­ex­pect­edly vis­ited one in her an­ces­tral home in Greece. A search for the grave of her Bri­tish grand­mother’s dead child led her there. She did not find the child’s re­mains. The keeper of the os­suary ex­plained that be­cause he hadn’t been bap­tised, he was not con­sid­ered a sub­ject.

To cre­ate her films, Siopis gath­ered ran­dom 8mm home­m­o­vie strips from ar­bi­trary auc­tion lots and flea mar­kets. She stitched dis­parate pieces to­gether around a spe­cific nar­ra­tive.

Lay Bare Be­side uses film shot in Africa in the 1960s. Siopis also fea­tures, bury­ing two skulls in the early part of the film and at the end. It was made as part of a transna­tional re­search project and ex­hi­bi­tion, called Boundary Ob­jects, at the Kun­sthaus Dres­den in Ger­many.

Siopis says the project’s fo­cus was on the resti­tu­tion of hu­man re­mains. She ex­plored re­mains whose his­tor­i­cal ori­gins were tied to the racist sci­ence of colo­nial ge­ogra­phies and ethno­gra­phies. These re­mains are still housed in mu­se­ums and medico-his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tions in Europe and Africa. Her brief was to make a work about the repa­tri­a­tion of hu­man re­mains.

Siopis’s pro­cesses are in­ti­mate and per­sonal. She views “the per­sonal as po­lit­i­cal”.

So rather than pro­duce an arms-length cri­tique or a dis­tant dis­cur­sive work, she sug­gested a nar­ra­tive around the two skulls. This pro­vided her with a way of en­gag­ing with what she terms “my own com­plic­ity”.

The nar­ra­tive of Lay Bare Be­side came from her late hus­band, the artist Colin Richards. He was deeply con­cerned about the ethics of own­ing two hu­man skulls from his time as a med­i­cal il­lus­tra­tor dur­ing the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion’s work on repa­tri­a­tion of hu­man re­mains. The skulls trou­bled him deeply, but he died be­fore a de­ci­sion could be made on what to do about them. The film also deals with Siopis’s griev­ing process for her hus­band.

Re­sponses to Lay Bare Be­side have ranged from find­ing it macabre, ques­tion­ing Siopis’s “as­sump­tion” of a con­nec­tion be­tween the two skulls by bury­ing them to­gether, to ques­tion­ing whether she had the right to use the im­agery of the found films, which in­clude seg­ments de­pict­ing black work­ers.

She says the film re­flects her ex­pe­ri­ence of “wrestling with what a proper burial means, not know­ing the par­tic­u­lar an­ces­try of the bod­ies’ skulls. As an artist you are speak­ing for your­self.”

Duane Jethro, of the Cen­tre for An­thro­po­log­i­cal Re­search for Mu­se­ums and Her­itage at Hum­boldt Univer­sity in Ber­lin, says the film is an “artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion” that sug­gests the “in­ter­sec­tion be­tween per­sonal and so­cial resti­tu­tion”.

The skulls in the film raise ques­tions about “ideas of own­er­ship, iden­tity, ideas of be­long­ing and ideas of resti­tu­tion” — in gen­eral and in the con­text of post-apartheid SA, he adds.

“The skulls also stand against a deep back­ground of the du­bi­ous and some­times crim­i­nal col­lect­ing of hu­man re­mains that took place in the late 19th cen­tury and early 20th cen­tury, re­port­edly for sci­en­tific rea­sons and pur­poses,” says Jethro.

“We have to think about the deep his­tory of vi­o­lence against black bod­ies un­der the pur­suit and guise of sci­en­tific knowl­edge when think­ing about hu­man re­mains in terms of mu­se­ums,” he says.

Siopis’s film shows a pri­vate burial for the two skulls.

Jethro won­ders about the “wider so­cial im­pli­ca­tions” of such a burial, con­sid­er­ing “when you bury some­one, what you are do­ing is restor­ing them to a wider so­cial body”. For him, the cen­tral is­sue of the film is the “restora­tion of some­thing lost or stolen to its proper owner”.

Jethro and Siopis agree that is­sues around the Prest­wich Place Me­mo­rial os­suary are com­plex and dif­fi­cult be­cause of, among other is­sues, the burial process and the im­por­tance of ful­fill­ing the “dif­fer­ent cos­molo­gies” of the de­ceased — as Jethro points out. He sug­gests that the ten­sion in which the os­suary is held is “not en­tirely” a bad thing.

“It’s ef­fec­tive in­so­far as it raises a pro­duc­tive on­go­ing ten­sion in re­la­tion to these re­mains that re­quire re­ally dif­fi­cult an­swers,” he says.

/Sup­plied /Sup­plied

Labour lore: Crit­ics of Penny Siopis’s film, Lay Bare Be­side, have ques­tioned whether she had the right to use images of the very peo­ple, many of them black work­ers, whose rights to a de­cent life, death and burial were de­nied. Bone burial: Penny...

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