Fathers is a subjective investigation of legitimacy and identity. I have attempted to connect the dots in my family’s history, tracing out my genealogy, cultural heritage and traditional ideals of identity. Accumulatively, these works are an exploration of the themes of absence, rebirth, legacy and the unknown.
In unpacking salient parts of my identity I have brought to light two important questions: What is lineage if a portion of my paternal heritage remains unknown? And what is my culture as a third-generation Cornish South African? In my attempts to answer these questions I have embarked on a journey to find out more about my anonymous paternal grandfather. In a sense, exhuming parts of him, disturbing his grave, and ultimately, performing a taboo.
Fathers is comprised of two works, Encircled and Combing the Cwm. Encircled is a sculptural installation of an incomplete circle of stones positioned next to a single stone in the centre of a chain-and-lock outline of a human body. In relation, Combing the Cwm is a black wooden box on a modest pedestal with a computer monitor looping a video recording of a performance and drawn animations.
The stone circle is a symbol of both death and family. It is a grave, a cairn and a kraal enclosure. It is a rudimentary, biomimetic fractal; pattern within a larger similar pattern.
Stones have been perceived as symbols of self for millennia (Von Franz 1988:209) so each stone in Encircled and Combing the Cwm is an individual. But, just as our bodies – our one identity – is made up of our ancestors’ DNA – a multitude of identities – so these stones represent one person and many persons simultaneously. My grandfather is then simultaneously a figure that is buried under these stones, but also one stone amongst many. But his one stone is not part of the circle, destined to be in limbo.
The circular motif is explored again in Combing the Cwm, with an animation of splitting lettered cells/stones. I have used a method of superimposing multiple meanings onto one element. They tie the themes of biology (cells), identity (the circle representing a unit), geography (stones) and meaning (letters) together. The cells/stones result in a mass of letters that have no meaning and construct no names.
The performance is a Sisyphus-like repetition of scanning the stone embankment for my grandfather’s stone, but results in nothing being found, until a snake (see opposite) – linked to the name of the lighthouse in Kommetjie, Slangkop – an agent of rebirth (Hannah 2006:177), shedding its skin, uncovers the ideal of identity, as we believe it today, a name and surname.
Identity, culture and geography
In these works I have represented my Celtic heritage as a Cornish South African. I am wearing the Cornish National tartan (The earliest mention of a Cornish kilt was first recorded in 1904, which bore a different tartan to the one worn in Combing the Cwm. The Cornish National was created in 1963 [Reed 2015]) in the performance. Tartan is itself a symbol of kinship, that of belonging to a clan, and a symbol of place, a clan’s territory (MacKay 2002:15).
All cultures superimpose meaning onto their environments; culture and geography are then bound together in meaning. As part of the Cornish diaspora, a part of my identity – as erroneous and arbitrary as it might seem – still relates to Cornwall in the British Isles, a place I’ve never visited.
I have also referenced the history of archaeological stone structures related to Cornish, Celtic and British history. Burial mounds are found all over Cornwall; there are rocky outcrops, walled enclosures, and rock-built tombs (Bradley 1998:13-22). However, all around the world stones have been used as objects of veneration, arranged in distinct patterns, or – as in our modern day – used as gravestones (Jaffe 1988:232-3; Historic Cornwall 2017).
Kommetjie, coombe, cwm
The geographic location captured in the video of my performance is in Kommetjie, Cape Town. I have fond memories of having lived there as a young boy. A section of the beach, next to the Slangkop lighthouse, is strewn with rocks.
What connects this location to my concept is in the names found there: “Slangkop”, which is Afrikaans for “snake head”, (own translation) and “Kommetjie”. Kommetjie is a diminutive of “kom” which in English is “coombe” and in Welsh and Cornish is, “cwm” (GPC 2017 Sv “cwm”; Oxford Dictionaries Blog 2017).
Kommetjie/coombe/cwm means a sheltered area or valley. To comb the cwm is then to search the sheltered area. With the snake, representing rebirth, present in the name of the lighthouse and the rocks, which are themselves symbols of self, Kommetjie presented itself as a place of convergence of many of the themes in my work.
Identity and legitimacy
The Department of Home Affairs treats fathers as the origin of “official” identities, but if they are unknown, how does one gain a sense of legitimacy of one’s identity?
Identity has – as defined by the Oxford Dictionary (Sv “identity”) – two definitions. The first is “The fact of being who or what a person or thing is” and the second is “a close similarity or feeling of understanding”. But there are also legal definitions. The South African Government’s definition of identity is exclusively related to one’s citizenship and personal details on the National Population Register (Department of Home Affairs, Identity documents).
We also create our own identities, and a large part of how we understand ourselves is through the way that we understand our parents. We inherit their genetics and appearances, their language, culture and attitudes.
But we can also inherit the implications of their relationship with each other, the world, or their absence or anonymity. In this sense, I have inherited the implications of my grandfather’s anonymity, and I have chosen to process these implications by unpacking them in the hopes of gaining closure.
My family history is by no means unique. Many people are born outside the boundaries of marriage, civil or customary unions, and are therefore prevented from obtaining a sense of legitimacy in their societies. It is then the individual’s responsibility – with or without their families– to define what form that closure takes for them.
The Archaeology of Religion and Spirituality. Historic Cornwall. http://www.historic-cornwall.org.uk/flyingpast/ceremony.html. (Accessed on the 23rd of July 2017).
Bradley, R. 1998. Ruined Buildings, Ruined Stones: Enclosures, Tombs and Natural Places in the Neolithic of South-West England. World Archaeology. The Past in the Past: The Reuse of Ancient Monuments. 30(1)13-22. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. United Kingdom.
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, A Dictionary of the Welsh Language. 2017. iOS App. Sv “cwm” Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. http://www.welsh-dictionary.ac.uk/android-ios-apps/. (Accessed on the 12th of November 2017).
Hannah, B. 2006. The Archetypal Symbolism of Animals. Chiron Publications, Illinois.
Identity documents. http://www.dha.gov.za/index.php/identity-documents2. (Accessed on the 23rd of July 2017).
Jaffé, A. 1988. Symbolism in the visual arts. Man and His Symbols. (230-271) Editor: Jung, C. New York: Anchor Press.
MacKay, J. 2002. Clans and Tartans. Thunder Bay Press. San Diego, California.
Oxford Paperback Dictionary Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide. 2001. 1st Edition. Sv “identity”. New York: Oxford University Press.
Oxford Dictionaries Blog. Flannel Trousers are not English. 2017. https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/10/06/flannel-trousers-are-not-english/.
(Accessed on the 12th of November 2017).
Reed, S. 2015. The Cornish Culture Association of Penzance. Cornish Kilts and Tartans. https://cornishculture.co.uk/portfolio/cornish-kilts-and-tartans/. (Accessed on the 12th of November 2017).
Von Franz, M.-L. 1988. The process of individuation. Man and His Symbols. (158-229) Editor: Jung, C. New York: Anchor Press.