Sun and fog

FIVE FRAGMENTS

UntitledPhoto: Barry Christianson

I have no recollection of this image being taken. I think it was at Slangkop or Orangekloof. It’s too close for my comfort, and yet not. I met Barry recently and he said something about choosing the image because of my interest in surveillance. The way it’s framed within the window makes it seem voyeuristic, but it is an honest image, I guess.

1. BAD PEOPLE AND NELSON MANDELA

As a child, growing up in India, I remember the two phrases that were used to describe South Africa: “bad people” and “Nelson Mandela”. Obviously a strategy to shelter us from any detailed account of what apartheid meant. When I first arrived in Cape Town in 2011, this strange impression from my childhood lingered in my memory. I had to tell myself, “It’s a beautiful place. Look at the picturesque postcard image of the mountains and the sea. Surely there is much more to this place than what we were told in the socialist India of the eighties.”

Our hike was set against the backdrop of student protests, building tensions, engagements, anxiety, race relations, black and white, an inescapable reality.

The only way to escape would be to return to India, but why run away from the choices one makes.

The first day of the hike, driving into the Cape Point reserve, I sat in the front of the van, next to the driver, filming with my iPhone. I remember thinking to myself, “This image is incredible: thick fog, mysterious landscape, near-zero visibility.” And then someone from the back of the van said, “A scene out of the Lord of Rings!” We drove on and the landscape didn’t change. The sun struggled to come out, to shine on us. It tried, tried really hard, but struggled to shine. I remember my thoughts drifting back to the Cape Town we had left behind.

Mandela is dead. I can’t tell between good and bad people.

2. THE PERSPECTIVE OF A DRONE

It’s the third day and we stop at the forced removal site at Redhill. Ilze gives a beautiful talk where she mixes personal anecdotes and family narratives to present the story of forced removals, not just in the Redhill area but in Cape Town more generally. She and Barry seem to understand each other very well. They nod knowingly at each other. It’s that look which says, “We know this, our families went through this”.

I cannot remember if Gcobani shared anything during that talk. It’s the point in our hike along the disjointed Hoerikwaggo trail where Cape Town’s apartheid politics physically present themselves. I am looking around and wondering how many people can really comprehend it beyond the level of a discussion, a lecture, a paper, jargon? This is followed by a relaxing swim in the dam.

For me, what was a point of heightened personal emotion melts into a leisurely swim, another adventure in nature. At that point I feel a strange disconnect. I am left imagining how things might have been during these forced removals. I think about those lives and I watch people enjoy a swim. I feel like a cyborg, suddenly numb, devoid of emotions. I try but there’s nothing. I want to fly above all this, have a bird’s eye view of the place and people.

I look up and there’s me: a drone in the sky.

3. WHEN MEN AND MOUNTAINS MEET

As a challenge for explorers the mountain wilderness between India and inner Asia was unique. The Western Himalayas were seen as a barrier guarding fabled cities. It took half a century to penetrate this barrier—evidence enough of the appalling difficulties involved.

John Keay, in When Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas (1977)

In reading an account of the explorers of the Western Himalayas that glorifies the adventures of a few Englishmen, I can’t help but think about the mountains we traversed during our hike. Isn’t an adventure for some always a story of conquest for others?

I recall Hedley’s talk about the Portuguese rounding the Cape. A conquest of the ocean, to reach the so-called “fabled cities”, to discover spices, to trade via oceanic routes: it all tells a story of capitalist ventures. Surely it must be the same to conquer someone’s mountain? Do we walk in the footsteps of the conquerors or the footsteps of the ancestors? Or are the two the same? Going off on a tangent, I think about how one can walk this “path of nature” in search of solitude without reflecting on what peace and solitude really mean. I understand they are different for different people.

We had a discussion (I think it was at Orangekloof) where I expressed the contrast in beliefs about what it means to “go alone into the mountains”. For me it means to go into exile. On the other hand, there is the lonely figure of the ascetic who gives up worldly pleasures in search of enlightenment. I am confused.

I don’t understand the meaning of solitude anymore.

4. THE SWEDISH THEORY OF LOVE

“Love thy neighbour”. But what if you don’t want anything to do with your neighbour? I was exposed to a new idea of “independence” in a thought-provoking documentary I watched at the IDFA film festival in Amsterdam just before the hike. The Swedish Theory of Love by Erik Gandini reflects on the notion of independence that the Swedes fought very hard for in the seventies. The blurb describes the film as “a provocative portrait of a nation of loners”. I was excited about discussing this idea with our Swedish colleagues, whom I was about to spend the next ten days with. I think I had a brief, interesting discussion with Mikela on the topic, and then for some unexplainable reason I dropped it. Mikela did mention that the director was only half-Swedish and half-Italian.

However, during the course of our discussions and workshops, I heard people express how touched they were about the care that was provided among the people in the group—the thoughtfulness, the companionship. It was a great boost for the camaraderie and tightness of the group, and I couldn’t have agreed more about the wonderful set of people participating in the hike.

Yet I couldn’t help but think to myself: “What set of experiences does this person come from that companionship and care seem to be the highlight of the entire residency experience?” Are sharing and care something one takes for granted? Are they something that not everyone experiences all the time? The sharing of very honest personal experiences left me wondering about the different nature of the societies we inhabit.

5. BLIP, BLIP, BLIP

Blip, blip blip: the sound on the edit time line when you don’t render the footage. It means you don’t get to hear the recorded sound or watch the footage without interruptions.

Back into the city from the mountains, I wonder if I am the only person happy to be back. I am happy to get lost amid a mass of people: to be part of a large unknown group, to see humanity in all its negative or positive glory. I like crowds. I grew up being a no one in a sea of crowds.

The last day is spent at the Hiddingh Campus, discussing, sharing and presenting our creative ideas. I have hours of audio recordings of group discussions, people speaking, presentations, workshops, etc. It was a pre-decided methodology for a final audiovisual work. In addition to the audio, I have several video clips, too. It’s an exciting day of collating everything, hearing from all these incredible talented people.

Ilze has pulled out a never-ending sheet of paper. (I can’t wait to see what she does with it.) Dani has been writing poems. Christine has the most amazing collection of acquired objects. Hedley is always informing us with his amazing knowledge about the Anthropocene. But time’s tight and I need to use the iMac in my studio to create a quick video. I sit in my studio, staring at all the footage and audio-wave formats. All that comes to mind is my first memory of the sun trying so hard to break through the clouds, and all the voices turn into blip blip blip . . .

Untitled1Photos: Meghna Singh


Meghna Singh is a visual artist and researcher. Hailing from New Delhi, India, she is currently pursuing art practice and doctoral research at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Working with mediums of video and installation, blurring boundaries between documentary and fiction, she creates immersive environments that highlight issues of “humanism” through the tool of the imaginary. Her current focus is on critical mobilities, migration and the invisible class of mobile populations that move around the world as a consequence of the capitalist globalised world we inhabit. She has traveled, lived and exhibited internationally in India, United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa, Cameroon, Turkey, Portugal and beyond.