Far from Kimberley / 2010

Photo's by Thijs Lange

Far from Kimberley

The city of Kimberley is about half way between Johannesburg and Knysna. Every year, on our way to the coast for our summer holiday, we stopped overnight in Kimberley. While there we visited Uncle Harold Morris, cousin to my grandfather, as well as the Great Hole, the De Beers diamond mine. As a child Kimberley was not high on my list of interesting places. I wanted to get to the coast and swim in the sea. It is only recently that I return in thought to this place and to the people who made lives there or briefly passed through. It has begun to feature in my thoughts as a point of convergence of a number of different historical moments.

References to Kimberley start to appear in my studio notebooks at the time that I was researching the film Off the Record. I was following the life and work of the writer, editor and intellectual, Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje, who took his first job as an interpreter at the court of justice in Kimberley at the end of the 19th century. Plaatje was an influential Kimberley resident and has been an important informant for much of my work over the years.  Off the Record is about the black men who volunteered for the Labour Corps in the First World War and it is Plaatje who writes of the lack of recognition that these men were granted for their services to country and Empire. A majority of the men who enlisted in the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) were from Kimberley.

References to Kimberley appear again when I started reading Agnes’ Tales, the  unpublished story of the lives of my forebears in South Africa. Agnes tells of her brothers Orlando and Henry Giddy (my great-grandfather) who, as part of a group calling themselves the Red Caps, discovered diamonds on a hill on a farm in the northern Cape, and so set off one of the great mining rushes of the 19th century. Thousands of prospectors rushed to the diamond fields, and the town of Kimberley was born.

Agnes recalls travelling to Kimberley (then still called New Rush) by ox-wagon with her mother, sisters and younger brothers to help Orlando and Henry work their claim. She tells too of their father, the Wesleyan missionary Richard Giddy, holding church services for the miners in a makeshift tent, the wind blowing out the candles that were propped into empty gin bottles.

Henry and Orlando Giddy worked their claim for a few years and seem to have done quite well on it. Then the hazards of living and working in the fine dust thrown up by the diggings started to affect their health and they sold their claim and went farming in the Eastern Cape. Fifty years later Henry Giddy wrote his reminiscences of the early days on the diamond fields and these were published in Kimberley’s Diamond Fields Advertiser. I have copies of these reminiscences in both Henry’s sloping handwriting and as the published articles.

Henry’s half-brother, Richard Hoskins Giddy (one of the babies in the Unfortunate Mrs. Giddy drawing), became the magistrate of Kimberley. He was an ardent free-mason and started a free-mason’s lodge in Kimberley. The Giddy Lodge still exists. Giddy Street has long since been renamed.

My forebears were constantly on the move and it is impossible to locate one place that could be termed a place of origin. The family migrated from south west England to the Cape Colony – in one of the great waves of emigration away from Europe at the beginning of the 19th century – then to the borders of Lesotho, followed by intermittent moves around the country. My parents, myself, were no different. Now, like many South Africans of my generation, I have moved beyond the borders. Not back to England but to Belgium – in one of the smaller waves of emigration away from South Africa. This sense of flow, of dissipation of family, is not something I regret. I love this spirit of adventure, of constantly seeking new challenges, new places, new experiences. It has its downside too of course. We are always separating from family. But that in turn provokes something rich and creative. We write letters to each other to keep connected. We seem always to have written letters to each other, and to have preserved these letters as the physical traces of those from whom we are separated. My father has tens of boxes of letters between family members – his parents, grandparents, aunts, great-aunts. We keep diaries too – to record these new experiences in new places – as great-uncle Walter did while in France in World War I. And these collected letters and diaries, unpublished narratives and reminiscences become the next generation’s connection to the past, to a series of pasts.

The title, Far from Kimberley, makes reference, too, to a documentary film by Jill Godmilow, Far from Poland. Wanting to make a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland but denied permission to enter the country, Godmilow decided to make it from New York. Using re-enactments, actual footage smuggled out of Poland, images from American television newscasts, ‘acted’ interviews with Polish exiles, and even a voice-over of a conversation that she supposedly had with Fidel Castro, she constructed a film that challenged most of the conventions of documentary. Her title speaks of an enforced geographical distance from the place and the political events with which she wanted to engage.

Far from Kimberley is a way to describe the distance between a place in South Africa and Enschede, a place in the Netherlands. It is intended too, to be understood as a way of describing the unreachable – referring not so much to a  place but to a time, to the past.  It is a metaphor for a series of historical moments that are impossible to revisit, even as I am determined to revisit them. It refers to a certain anxious desire on my part to know and possess this past, even as I know the impossibility of the venture. Kimberley represents this search into the past, into my past.

Wendy Morris – Far from Kimberley

21rozendaal, actuele kunst, Enschede, The Netherlands

23 May – 12 September 2010

Link to curator Nanda Janssen’s website for more information about this exhibition