Opinions

Re-Placing the Past

  • Posted on January 21, 2015

Every time I return to Berlin I am struck by the dynamics of heritage formation that have played out there in comparison to those at play in South Africa. 20 years into the democratic dispensation in South Africa, and with this week marking 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down, I would like to think about what kind of comparisons we can draw. Specifically, I want to briefly reflect on the work of two important German artists to think about urban, conceptually driven heritage practise in South Africa.

Andreas Huyssens famously opined that Berlin is an urban palimpsest, a kind of brick-and-cement city-text that bears the signs of multiple layers of inscription and re-inscription. That cityscape is saturated with the material signs of the recovery of memory, with an array of markers and cultural institutions commemorating different ages accumulating upon each other, telling sometimes different, sometimes parallel, stories about the city’s many pasts.

A Journey Throuh Time, Berlin. Photograph: Duane Jethro A Journey Throuh Time, Berlin. Photograph: Duane Jethro
Take U-Bahn station Bayerisches Platz. It serves as an exhibition space reflecting on the history of rail travel in the Bayerisches Viertel, or quarter, before and after the Second World War and its former Jewish community. The station platform features one-story tall photos of life in the area, and the entrance hall has been turned into a gallery showcasing an exhibition titled Eine Zeitreise: das Bayerisches Viertel in Berlin-Schöneberg, or a Journey Through Time: the Bayerische Viertel, Berlin Schöneberg. Bayersche Platz, becoming a material platform to stage travel through urban space and time.

Memory Sign, Berlin. Photograph: Duane Jethro Memory Sign, Berlin. Photograph: Duane Jethro
Significantly, the Bayerisches Viertel in Schöneberg-Berlin is the site of a heritage project entitled Memory Signs. Installed in 1993, and designed by the conceptual artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, Places of Remembrance comprises 80 street signs placed on lampposts throughout the area, featuring a set of simple, colourful pictures of things like a bathing suit, a dog or a dummy on one side, and text from a related piece of repressive Nazi legislation on the other. For example, the sign featuring a picture of a rubber stamp is coupled with the German text that reads, “Jewish civil servants may no longer serve the State. April 7 1933”.

Places of Remembrance is a playful counter-monument that subverts practises of monument making in a city overrun with material heritage markers. For example, the concept breaks with the common aesthetic associated with a monument, that is, of a monument as a grand, yet solemn physical marker imposed on public space. Instead Memory Signs is diffuse and blends in with the surrounding public space. The memorial also plays with the notion of memory, intended to be both like a mnemonic device, of pictures and text, but also to question the notion of memory and memorialisation, since the artists intended it to challenge pedestrian perceptions of urban space and memory. Riffing on one German concept for a monument, Denkmal, the artists hoped to literally challenge their audience to ‘think again’. Memory Signs interfered with the fixity of memory, and the conventional ways in which memories were fixed in place.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Memorial, KwaZulu Natal. Photograph: Duane Jethro Ladysmith Black Mambazo Memorial, KwaZulu Natal. Photograph: Duane Jethro
Places of Remembrance played on the minds of heritage professionals in South Africa. Some of its core features, such as creativity, site-specificity and commemorative diffusion were incorporated into the Sunday Times Heritage Project. To recap, in 2006 the Sunday Times celebrated its centenary by embarking on a public heritage project that comprised a series of memorials. The project would also spawn a website, and a host of popular and educational media products. The material aspect of the project was distinctive because the Sunday Times consciously chose to break with South Africa’s dominant commemorative aesthetic, that of the big man in bronze on a horse. They chose to erect a series of individually designed site-specific, interactive pieces of public art, placing these at locations across South Africa.

This was a bold move. In South Africa, vandalism and defacement are a big problem. The project wanted to counter this high-brow stigma through its give-back initiative, which is meritorious. Sadly, however, it has failed. Almost ten years later, many of the memorials are either in a state of disrepair or lay in ruins. Many reasons are behind their decay and destruction. But it needs to be said, to my knowledge, they have not been fully utilised, by, for example, being incorporated into educational guided walking tours, as the Places of Remembrance has. And at a conceptual level, the memorials have not been able to stir up the kind of public debate that Stih and Schnock initiated regarding what it means to engage with narratives in place.

Some memorials have been a success however. Recently UCT upgraded the SS Mendi Memorial on middle campus, commemorating the black soldiers who rallied near there and died on their voyage to Europe in the First World War. Designed by Madi Phala, the original Sunday Times memorial was finished by Rod Sauls after Madi was tragically killed. It’s an important example of how the project could be taken up, utilised and built on. Conceptually, at least, is also one small instance of how we can draw Berlin and South Africa closer together in our thinking about heritage-making after radical social and political transformation.

Select Bibliography

Places of Remembrance
http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/memorials/remembrance/

Sunday Times Heritage Project http://www.saha.org.za/projects/sunday_times_heritage_project.htm

Till, Karen. 2005. The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wiedmer, Caroline. (1995). Places of Remembrance. Alphabet City (4+5): 6-12.

Marschall, Sabine. 2011. The Sunday Times Heritage Project: heritage the media and the formation of national consciousness. Social Dynamics: Journal of African Studies 37(3): 409-423.

Duane Jethro, is a PhD student in social and cultural anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and an Archival Platform correspondent

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