Has this broken world in which we live, replete as it is with an anything goes mentality, become numbed by the notion of horror? Have images of atrocity lost their bite? This is a question you might be tempted to ask as you enter the space of Keith Dietrich’s astonishingly beautiful exhibition which focuses on crimes and punishments relating to colonial slavery from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. But as you peruse this body of work, which in its thinking and its execution brings the spectre of slavery to the fore, you will be unnerved and seduced in a way that graphic representations of violence just cannot reach.
In 1985, film director Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work Shoah shook the foundation of what Holocaust documentary film should be. This monster production which is over 10 hours in length and which took some 11 years to create redefined the telling of a story of an atrocity. Lanzmann veered completely from any images relating to the series of brutalities which have come to be collectively called the Holocaust. Instead, his panning camera focuses on the beautiful lush green landscapes of the contemporary sites of those appalling acts of hate. And he records verbatim the words, in layers of language, of the witnesses, victims, perpetrators.
In his elegant and enormous yet profoundly subtle exhibition, Dietrich does something that cleaves to an understanding of the underpinnings of Lanzmann’s project. In reflecting on the punishment of slaves in 18th and 19th century colonial South Africa, he quotes from 1 220 legal treatises and record books, offering names, crimes and punishments. Bound magnificently into four artists’ books, the work has no images of brutality. But the words in red ink, accounting these floggings and impalings, amputations and beheadings, punishments for petty crimes, are far more emotive and evocative than any representation could be.
It’s like radio theatre: the words simply and directly open your sensibilities to the real horror under Dietrich’s loupe. The four hand-stitched unique books play with the traditions of bookbinding in a way that skirts notions of fragility and notions of tradition, yielding a kaleidoscopic series of impeccable paper folds that seize you by the eyes and pull you in to its interstices, unyielding.
The walls around the installation feature four photomontaged portraits that focus on the diversity of people who were, indeed, slaves in the period under scrutiny. Each of them – three men and a woman – are strong, iconic images that engage you directly. Each has a text on his or her body, embracing and celebrating a drawing of a vital organ. It’s a text of records of atrocities, but in its physical presence it entraps your eye, your heart and your sense of history.
Dietrich is a heavyweight – as an academic and an artist – and yet, he exercises great astuteness and restraint, almost levity, in presenting the material in his exhibition. This is not about prowess. The writing and how it relates to the subject matter in its positioning and its layout flows with directness that takes you through geographies and moralities with a smoothness that leaves you thinking – the vessels for the ideas in this exhibition are so beautifully honed and so thoughtfully compiled that they do not stand in the way of the gem-like kernels presented.
But visiting this exhibition in its current manifestation – it will be travelling the country in the coming year – is a stultifying challenge, saved by the strength of the work. While this is a topic for another post and shouldn’t detract from an honest engagement with Dietrich’s work, the Pretoria Art Museum shrieks disrespect for the work it houses.
Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives is an important exhibition, not only in terms of the documentary insights it offers into the grim and dirty roots of slavery in this country, but also in terms of the unequivocal achievement the work offers the rather obscure discipline of artists’ books.
- Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives, an exhibition by Keith Dietrich is at the Pretoria Art Museum until January 17. Call 012 358 6750