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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

The artist's reaction to traumatic events in society: How do societal traumata impact on, or even define, the works of artists?

Antjie Krog - 2011-09-22

Untitled Document

  • Antjie Krog delivered the keynote address at the Goethe-Institut's Über(W)unden Art in Troubled Times conference which took place from 7–11 September 2011.

Antjie Krog at the Über(W)unden Art in Troubled Times conference
Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/2point8

I will look at three artworks: one by an artist who responded to a traumatic revelation before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the second, a piece of sculpture made by an artist to deal with her own personal trauma; and a third work, which expresses the trauma of being caught up in a visionless space filled with poverty and the betrayal of the dreams which not only drove the struggle for liberation, but determined the pact all South Africans made in 1994.

Part one

The Truth Commissioner spreads the photos on the table. He is reporting on the digging up of the grave of ANC commander Phila Ndwandwe. When she disappeared during the height of apartheid, her family was told that she had eloped with a boyfriend to Tanzania. It was only when one of the security force members asked for amnesty for her killing that her death and grave became known.

The photographs that the Truth Commissioner shows display a slope of tamboekie grass, a wind-blue sky, some fresh soil. He speaks:

“The amnesty applicant showed us the place … we dug … we found red topsoil mixed with black subsoil … then we knew there had been interference with the layers of the soil … and soon the spade hit something …"

“‘She was brave this one, hell she was brave,’ the amnesty applicant said, showing us where the hidden grave was. He whistled softly through his teeth as if admiring her for the first time. ‘She simply refused to talk.’”

Next photo: the earth holding a bundle of bones. Delicately they are chiselled loose. Cigarette butts, an empty beer bottle.

“‘It’s hard work, digging,’ the amnesty applicant said, as if to explain the presence of rubbish in the grave,” says the Truth Commissioner.

Next photo: a man in short sleeves puts the bones on a small piece of canvas next to the grave – like building-blocks. A vertebra … the thin flattened collarbone … the skull has a bullet hole right on top.

“She was kneeling,” said the amnesty applicant, “so we shot from above.”

On the photos: ribs. Breastbone that once held a heart. Her brave heart.

Next photo: a pelvis and around it blue plastic. An ordinary blue plastic shopping bag. “When he saw this the amnesty applicant suddenly remembered. ‘Oh yes, we kept her naked and after ten days she made herself these panties.’ He sniggered. ‘She was a brave one.’”

On television that night we saw the grieving parents of Phila Ndwandwe. The mother who never knew whether her daughter might not still be alive, broke down as she said: “I cannot bear the fact that all these years she was in a grave a mere ten kilometres away from me and I didn’t know that. I didn’t feel that. My previous grief suddenly seems like such a luxury.”


It’s a peaceful weekday morning. As I ring the bell to the art gallery, the suburb comes to me in friendly domestic sounds of radio chatter and the hum of appliances. I am alone. Someone had suggested that I go and see the exhibition of artist Judith Mason.

Suddenly I find myself in a room – completely empty at first glance except for an ordinary wire coat-hanger suspended in the middle. From it hangs a dress made of blue plastic – blue shopping bag plastic. The pretty shoulder straps are holding up a blue embroidered bodice – from the soft pleated empire line the skirt flows out light and carefree as if swaying in the soft morning breeze. As if in it a woman is moving - lithe and lovely. It is so exquisite, this soft, twirling, blue, delicately rustling dress, that I simply have to bend over. Kneel. Sit. Choke.

It is for her!

MK Commander Phila Ndwande. This dress is for her. The blue plastic panties of shame and humiliation had been transformed into this haunting blue salute of beauty.

Perhaps this is the only thing art can do: try to transform pain into a kind of beauty so that, at times, one can live with loss.

Hamba Kahle Phila …

may your spirit dance free
in this blue blessed dress

for you …

and perhaps
for us.

(Judith Mason made paintings of this dress and it hangs in the Constitutional Court, where it floats light and lovely in the heat generated from the burning konkas of memory while the hyenas of death scowl in the background.)

Part two

I am in Vladslo, West Flanders. I am standing in front of the sculpture group titled Grieving Parents made by German artist Käthe Kollwitz after the First World War.

I feel heavy. Suddenly. Looking at the two kneeling figures.

Grief has the hands of this father: one clenching the upper arm in rage, the other holding the ribs so that they do not burst with grief. Grief has the stone face of this father. Grief wears his pitiful shoes of stone. Grief has the bowed head of the mother. Grief is wrapped in the stone cloak, which wears her down. Unable to lift a face to the world - arms and hands holding the chest where the blunt grater of grief shreds her heart and soul. The upper lip and cheeks are set in the loneliest of stone.

The grief contained in these two figures drenches my bones. I turn away, back into my life.

But as I am walking back across the killing fields of Flanders, I am puzzled by the fact that there is no contact between the grieving husband and wife. They are kneeling on two separate pedestals. Nothing in their body language, or in their design, gives them any contact. As if to say: there is no succour to be found anywhere after the death of a child, not even (and perhaps especially not, I wonder) with one’s spouse. I find it odd. Surely, the death of a child is the one moment where a father and mother are equally involved and can comfort each other, because they both made and loved this child. I find the two parents hauntingly moving, but I balk at the separateness of their grief.


Afrikaners also have a well known and much revered statuary group of two women expressing the grief emanating from the concentration camps of the Anglo-Boer War. The emaciated corpse of a little girl lies in the lap of an older, seated woman, sunken into sorrow, while a younger woman stands next to her, her hand on the older woman’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort, as she looks straight ahead, into the future.

This taught me from a very young age: we can comfort, we should comfort one another in grief, because of life.

So I couldn’t understand why Käthe Kollwitz was saying with these two figures: in grief a father and a mother are absolutely alone.


About seven years after this visit to Flanders I reported as a radio journalist on the testimonies of apartheid victims before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many parents testified.

It was soon clear: the death of a child creates a grief unlike any other. The severest loss is that sense of invulnerability that allows one to lead a normal life - to go out to drive a car, to let one’s children visit others. This trust that you will see your child when she returns from school, is totally destroyed when one of your children dies. The death of a child brings existential despair – parents feel scared, alone and incapacitated. Events that once brought families together, such as birthdays and holidays, become reminders of loss.

A grieving parent testified: “Immediately I noticed a trickle of blood on her shoulder as she was lying face down. I pressed her to the ground and counted to ten waiting for this explosion. Nothing happened. I turned her over and she just slumped in my arms.

“I lifted my daughter up, felt for her pulse, but my hand just sank into her neck. I lay her down on her back, tried to close her eyes, but they would not close. This is when the realisation really hit me that she was dead … I feel responsible and guilty. I have lived with that for the past ten years.

“As Lindy’s father, responsible for her existence, I accepted the responsibility of raising and caring for her to the best of my ability … When our children become adults, and more than equal to their parents, that is when the battles all seem worth it and many of life’s mysteries seem to fall into place … But I and my wife have been robbed. Robbed of our own flesh and blood. Robbed of the most natural form of happiness that humans can experience … No longer do we hear the voice on the telephone … You see sir, we were ordinary people, doing ordinary work, in our own ordinary and uncomplicated manner … So why did she have to die so young and by such violent means?”

It seems that families are often plagued by their own guilt. The sudden death leaves all sorts of issues between the dead and the family unresolved. Siblings feel guilty that they have survived. Parents are torn by guilt. Aren’t parents supposed to keep their children safe from harm at any cost? It seems that the death of a child becomes a kind of looming icon of the profound failure of the parents to protect their child.

We learn about the effects of grief on the body.

“I’ve just had major surgery, which I trace as a direct result of the stress and trauma that resulted after the Heidelberg incident. It has been demonstrated that cancer of the colon results from tremendous stress. First my heart was ripped out and now half my gut. I am happy that you are well. The day you killed my child you ripped my heart out.”

It seems that the internalised grief felt by parents brings about a variety of serious illnesses. Some parents soon follow their children to the grave.

So the truth that Käthe Kollwitz, the artist of Grieving Parents, drank from was illuminated over and over in the testimonies before the commission:

“My wife has told you her grief. She preferred to talk directly to the killers. My grief is different. I talk to you, Mr Chairman, as the person who decides on their amnesty.”

It seems that men and women grieve differently.

“Suffice to say, my marriage has suffered irreparable harm. My wife suffers from extreme anxiety and nervous tension. We are both on constant medication.”

The differences and discrepancies in grieving often create resentment and there is a high divorce rate among grieving parents.

Käthe Kollwitz knew. She had looked into a mirror darkly.


When Käthe Kollwitz came down the steps of her house in Berlin she saw a man standing in the foyer and her husband in spasms of bewilderment. The man had come to tell them that their youngest son, Peter, had been killed in action at Diksmuide on 23 October 1914, right at the beginning of the war.

Käthe Kollwitz wrote: “Everything has changed, for ever, and I have become poorer. My whole motherlife already lies behind me. Many times I have such an unbearable longing to have my two sons with me again, the one on my right side and the other on my left, to dance with them, as before, when it became spring and Peter runs towards me with flowers.”

Two years after his death she was trying to come to terms with it through her art. She made a drawing of a mother holding her dead son in her arms. “I can make hundreds of similar drawings, without being able to approach Peter. I search for him and know that I could find him in my work. But everything I produce is so weak and unsatisfying.” (Emphasis added.)

She wanted to make a relief of Peter – stretched out in full length with the father at the one end of the body and the mother at the other end. Then she changed it to Peter suspended above the parents, with his arms outstretched. Nothing really worked for her. Then she started with the father, then abandoned him and started with the mother. For weeks she worked on the exhaustion of the shoulders, the back, the arms – slow and with difficulty. Then she took up the father again, but stopped immediately: “I cannot do it.”

Then she transformed Peter into a figure of the German Youth, to accompany the slogan: Never again war. This generalisation also didn’t help her to find him.

Ten years after Peter’s death she decided to make two full separate figures – first in clay and then carved in granite. She persevered through several mishaps and setbacks but finally, on the evening before the work was finished, she could write in her diary: “In this evening in my work I have been fully with you, my son.”

The mother and the father, without Peter, were moved to the cemetery in Flanders. Both Käthe and her husband went with the stone parents. The two figures were hoisted on to pedestals with particular care so that the mother is tilted forward just enough in contrast to the father looking up, not towards the horizon, but towards the grave of his son. Two petrified parents kneel at the entry to the Roggeveld. And that was the closest Käthe Kollwitz could come to regaining Peter. To plant a hawthorn rose on his grave in the presence of eternally grieving parents.

Part three

The last artwork I want to discuss is a painting made in the past three years.

It could be viewed only from behind a variety of projectors. On the big canvas a widening crack was painted, slashing diagonally across. Over it several projected grey strips aimlessly criss-cross the canvas and seem to come together within the outline of a figure which could be Nelson Mandela, but one is not sure. The moment these strips enter the figure they begin to acquire colour: blue, red, yellow, purple, etc. When they leave, they revert back to disappearing greys. On the right side of the canvas is a kneeling person, arms lifted as if to protect himself. On the wrist something flashes which might be a cuff link. It’s not clear whether he’s defending himself against the dark, vicious crack splitting towards him, because his face is turned to stare anxiously out of the painting. Behind these two unidentifiable figures the canvas is swarming with people. Seeing a shoe here, an amputation there, an open trouser slit, an emaciated collarbone, shining eyes, a clean, simple dress, pitiless eyes, a scarred cheek, they stream in thousands across the canvas: people poor and dignified, people poor and striving, people poor and without information, people poor and destitute, people poor and dying, people poor and violent, people poor and degenerate, masses and masses of people. But if one’s eyes focus on one spot, one sees behind these people a single, many-headed bust. All the eyes of all the heads are closed, but the mouths move vacuously, displaying flashes of gold fillings; the ears are plugged with silver spoons or bling.

A quotation from a South African novel is screened on the wall left of the painting: “They with their fathers and mothers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? ... Heavy eyelids, piggish eyes, shrewd with the shrewdness of generations of peasants. Plotting against each other too: slow peasant plots that take decades to mature … Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them. … Their feat ... to have raised stupidity to a virtue. To stupefy …”

But what is fascinating about this painting is that, apart from the all-swallowing crack, everything else is hovering a few centimetres away, in front of the canvas. The projectors from where one can look at the painting are all linked to a lever titled “Re-dream”. Re-dream is also the title of the painting.

The woman who stood at the canvas before me decided to pull the lever. Suddenly all the projectors switched off. Gone were the milling crowd, the pleading figure, the outline, the bust. It was now only the enormous crack, and before our eyes, with a violent, wailing, ear-piercing sound, it menacingly tore into the canvas and ripped it apart.

We all stared. “What is this?” I asked. “These shreds? Was this the Re-dream?” A young girl nodded as she nonchalantly replaced the canvas and switched on the projectors.

I was distressed. Why this lethal combination of redreaming and total destruction?

Was violence the only reality young people were capable of dreaming? Was this a symptom of bad education and a lack of vision, or was this pointing to the kind of violence Frantz Fanon identified as the inevitable consequence of colonialism?

Could one say with Fanon that the oppressed people in South Africa lived for centuries in an atmosphere of violence which had dehumanised, tortured and terrified in order to keep them subservient and under systemic control? The liberation of 1994 and a black government did not automatically magically restore these affected psyches. Fanon suggests that in order to get rid of the consequences of this oppression, violence can bring an important catharsis. “Violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self respect” (WE 94).

Violence will begin with the peasantry, Fanon says – in other words, on the farms and in the rural villages. Violent reclamation of one’s land and, by extension, one’s country is a matter of self-defence, he says – it brings psychological release to see that the oppressor has feet of clay by actually breaking his legs or slitting his throat.

Of course, this conjures up Zimbabwe! No matter how objectionable and unfair the land-grabbings were, Zimbabwe has managed to scramble much of its former hierarchies; but we, our government, the Land Commission, the farmers, we sit like hares caught in the light – too greedy, too incompetent, too uncreative, not scared enough to come up with a workable plan to let Zimbabwe happen here but without the violence, without the suffering of farmworkers and eventual unjust distribution.

Or is the combination of violence and redreaming in the painting saying something else? Is it saying that never in the history of the world had the poor known so intimately the splendour of the rich and the rich known so graphically how the poor are suffering? Is it saying that we need to dare to disturb the underground pinnings of our everyday lives? That we should acknowledge that amidst so much injustice, poverty and corruption our future is doomed, a catastrophe is inevitable, in the hope that we would at last become willing to mobilise for an act which will change our destiny from a catastrophe to a redreamed reality? Is the painting saying: See what is going to happen to us, see the total devastation that the crack will bring about? And that although that destruction is already here, we could now do something in order to change this coming future of devastation? One has to act now, because the future one does not want is already here. To change the future we have to change the here, now.

How does one change the here? Through a radical act. But frankly, the only radical suggestions I hear come from the ANC Youth League.

But let us look at the crouching isolated figure. Perhaps he has asked forgiveness. He probably hasn’t, but it is his fear for retribution and his gatvolheid of being blamed and sidelined that drives his actions. Suggestions for this figure are pouring in: he should be quiet, he should say nothing, he should give back what he has stolen, he should pay a wealth tax, he should be expropriated, he should give five hours of his life every week to assist people in hospitals, squatter camps, courts, libraries, schools, sport, with sanitation etc, he should give back all the wealth to the rightful owners of the country – the black people.

He may be the one who drives the notion of Mandela as exclusively an icon of forgiveness. This makes it possible for him to talk tolerance while living ensconced in the intolerance of privilege. The problem with Mandela’s portrayed tolerance is the intolerance of his portrayers, the histrionic whiningabout anything that smells of a fundamental redressing of inequality.

Indeed, why do the beneficiaries of forgiveness assume that no equally spectacular reciprocal act is expected from them? Why is Mandela not portrayed as somebody who is waiting for an equally dramatic and successful gesture from those he had forgiven?

But say this “he” in the painting, this crouching man, would actually like to, would be relieved to rebuild, is already busy rebuilding, but needs to do it, we all know that, do it under the vision and leadership of black Africans.

Where is this black African leadership? Joseph Edozien says in the Cape Times that South Africa has everything it needs for itself: population, culture, creativity, energy, fortitude, diversity, low density, demographic variety and natural resources. “All it lacks is a co-operative decolonised continental politico-economic structure with a self-affirming black population, an independent financial system, self-confident mentally decolonised leadership, and a genuine and self-developed indigenous vision for the future.

“So what frustrates this? White capital,” says Edozien, “and a derivative African colonial lack of self-belief.” He says that those who benefit so handsomely from South Africa and Africa want “a mentally colonised, materially lustful, weak, confused, colluding, deluded, divided, and stumbling” state to plunder even more. “And so far they are winning the game with the active collusion of the Africans they encourage and enrich with fake praise and fool’s gold.”

In his book Violence (2009) Slavoj Žižek maintains that the middle classes prefer to believe that poverty is not attributable to concrete steps set in motion by particular identifiable individuals and groups, but think that poverty is “objective”, systemic and anonymous (2009:11) In a chapter titled “Tolerance as an Ideological Category” (2009:119-50) Žižek accuses us all of participating in and sustaining the violence done to the poor through driving the notions of tolerance and reconciliation. “Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation or justice? … Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle?” (2009:119) he asks.

Instead of trying to remedy inequality with radical, even revolutionary steps, cultural or skin colour differences are presented as the only differences and ones not able to be overcome. “They can only be tolerated” (2009:119).

Is it not time then, for the radical act? Should we not begin to combine our rejection of greed, selfishness, corruption, pool our available rage potential, get up and pull the emergency cord on the train? Let it screech. Let it stop. Pull the cord and bring the arrogantly clinging, grabbing, stealing, safeguarding of privilege, concealing of flouted regulations, consuming, corrupting, non-sharing to a halt. We refuse to measure any longer our 1994 miracle by the awe of its ecstatic moments, but will measure it by the changes, the radically new modality of existence that is brought to everybody’s everyday life (154).

We say in the words of Robespierre: “Without a deep horror of tyranny, without a compassionate zeal for the oppressed, without sublime and holy love for humanity, a revolution is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime” (Robespierre’s last speech before his arrest and execution).

We should not dilute solidarity or our linkedness. No single political, racial, class group party will be able to improve the lives of the poor if it does not use everybody. Solidarity that lies with one’s own kind becomes weak and uncreative with inbreeding; that solidarity that recognises, in the words of Age of Iron, that “blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging to nature together: lent not given; held in common, in trust, to be preserved”, is the solidarity that could assist us to reconnect with the rainbow.

Did I say rainbow? And didn’t Edozien say that what was needed was a self-confident mentally decolonised leadership, and a genuine and self-developed indigenous vision for the future? What could this indigenous vision be? How could it not be linked to our own home-woven, most used, most criticised, but one of the few truly original metaphors to come out of South Africa, namely the rainbow?

How should we understand the rainbow if we do not want it to be abused as a cover-up for the preservation of privilege?

The rainbow metaphor has been ridiculed for having neither white nor black as part of its colour constellation. More recently, it was condemned as indoctrinating South Africans to live in false and unjust peace and dismissed as nothing but the sentimental utterance of a touchy-feely religious old man.

Let me make a few points about the rainbow as a metaphor.

The rainbow is not something like Father Christmas or the tooth fairy or a pot of gold. The rainbow as we regularly see it in the sky is a scientific fact, it is real. If we say that we are the rainbow nation then we are saying that we ourselves are real, as real as the land that we are walking in.

At the same time, if one sees a rainbow – whether one is sitting in the traffic or walking in the veld – it always feels, somehow, that the rainbow in all its uncontaminated splendour is from another world. Saying that we are a rainbow nation means that our everyday struggles and ordinary strife should always keep the possibility, the bringing about, of another world alive.

For the rainbow to be, it has to be raining as the sun shines, the storm must be over, but much of it should still be present. If we say we are the rainbow nation, we have to learn to live with the presence of contradiction and stormy instability.

The rainbow cannot be formed with, say, only orange and violet. All the identified colours are always present, in the same order, but gradually overflowing. Interpreted metaphorically, it means that the rainbow cannot be if some colours are invisible, powerless or allowed to suffer or die. If we say we are the rainbow nation we should know that we can exist only inclusively. If parts of ourselves are too poor, too ill, too bent on revenge or hoarding, every one of us will cease to exist.

But now for the real magic. The scientific essence of the rainbow is the following: all the droplets, tiny as they are, as they fall, reflect and refract the full spectrum of the rainbow, every droplet reflects the full spectrum. As they fall, one’s eye picks only one colour from a million droplets, then another, then another, until you see the rainbow in its iconic shape. But all the droplets have to disperse all the colours all the time for you to fully see the rainbow.

Do we reflect all South Africans all the time? Am I standing here as a white Afrikaner woman, or am I reflecting fellow South Africans? Following the logic of rainbow science, it means that the only reason you see me is that I refract all the colours. If I were to refract exclusively Afrikaner female whiteness I would disappear. But, and this is even more radical, our only survival lies in whether all of us reflect and refract all South Africans. If we want to work only with black or only with white, all of us, and I mean all of us, will cease to exist and the crack will have completed its destruction.