History and Heritage lost narratives

Straining Against the Archives

A gathering was recently held in Cape Town to read my essay, Unpick, Restitch: Doilies, Medorahs and Labouring Plants. The essay is the first in the Fieldguides for a Preternaturalist series of chapbooks, within the project, Nothing of Importance Occurred: Recuperating a Herball for a 17th Century Enslaved Angolan Midwife at the Cape. The project was inititated by South African artist, Wendy Morris, whose enslaved ancestor, Maaij Claesje of Angola, was a midwife in the Company slave lodge in Cape Town.

My writing is about trying to piece together a narrative of who I am, where I come from, and where I belong. In order to recuperate these erased narratives, I have drawn from an ordinary archive – oral history, family photos and objects like my grandmother’s scarves and the doilies she crocheted. The objects that our grandparents found important to make, keep and pass down to us, give us a sense of belonging. The things that they touched and used, hold a history that fills in the blanks in the official archives and challenge the dominant narratives that would have us believe that we were less-than.

During my research, I came across the Flower of Maryam, the labouring plant of the essay title. The plant, which was usually brought back by pilgrims from Mecca in its dried state, had been used as a visual tool during labour and was passed down from one generation of women to the next. At the start of our programme I immersed the plant in a bowl of water to help us keep track of time.

After Wendy gave an overview of the larger project, story-teller and poet, Philippa Kabali Kagwa, led us into the reading with an invocation. It was a privilege to hear my essay read in a multitude of voices that cut across any divisions of colour, religion, gender or age, and a testimony to the power of story to connect us. By the time our gathering came to a close, the Flower of Maryam had opened, a powerful representation of rebirth, community memory and women’s agencies over their bodies.

The gathering was organised by Deep Histories, Fragile Memories, a research group at LUCA School of Arts, Brussels, and the Cape Town Museum.

History and Heritage

My Grandmother’s Dream Catchers II

About a year ago, my daughter treated me to a mother-daughter clay workshop that has since become a regular feature in my calendar. Working with clay has been the perfect antidote to being immersed in writing up my thesis. A serendipitous connection between the two, though, has been my “doilie collection”. This is a series of projects that I have been working on to imprint my grandmother’s designs into clay. I have felt a deep connection to the creative heritage that she initiated with her “poor man’s lace”, the craft work that she used to supplement the family income, while creating my own interpretation of her work.

I have been surrounded by memories of her while I kneaded and shaped, respectfully joining her work and mine, layering it with oxides and glazes, patiently waiting for them to be fired in the kiln between the different processes. I have created something new by building on the past, but this heritage has flowed like a river finding its away around stones, as I was pleased to discover when I found the certificate that my father had earned for his artwork in 1954. He had won third prize for a print he had made of one of my grandmother’s designs. The certificate is the link between her work and mine, and those crocheted threads now span three generations.

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These simple objects build on the archive of the ordinary that tells the stories of where we come from, what Anthony Bogues describes as the ordinary practices of every day freedoms that the oppressed engaged in to hold on to their humanity. They disrupt the dominant narratives of apartheid that would see us as less than, as a people without history.