dot 18: human[ity]

Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity.

Henry James (1861-1916)

The origin of the word human is related to the word humus or ‘earth’. Humus is decayed plant or animal matter which, in itself, signals the cycle of life. Decay inevitably indicates death. In the recent exhibition Between Subject & Object  (7-30 August 2014) held at Michaelis Galleries, UCT Hiddingh Campus in Cape Town, the depiction of human remains (death) is explored.

As a visual artist who is extremely interested in Art&Science I was both curious and excited to see this exhibition, which is the first of its nature in South Africa. Adding to this, Between Subject & Object accompanied the first-ever Medical Humanities in Africa Conference (28-29 August 2014). In my opinion, the art and science interface is long overdue in the South African arts landscape, and I feel the need to express my gratitude towards the three co-curators – Josephine Higgins, Kathryn Smith & Penny Siopis – for initiating this bold step.

My personal reaction to the exhibited work was interesting to myself. I managed to stay at the opening night for a mere five minutes, subsequently traveling home feeling very confused about my unexpected reaction. Was I feeling this way because of my general reaction to opening nights ( see vulnerability), or was the content itself the cause? I struggled to make sense of it, but deep down I sensed that the portrayal of death (or the remains thereof) excluded the most important element: humanity. I decided to re-visit the exhibition on the last day when the curators would speak about the works during the walkabout.

This morning, as I was traveling the 50 kilometers to get to Cape Town, I was mentally preparing myself to remain open-minded as I learnt from the curators themselves. Arriving somewhat too early, my mother (who had come along for the exhibition) and I ended up sitting next to a neatly dressed gentleman on a narrow bench in front of Jordan Baseman’s video projection of A Cold Hand on a Cold Day which explores embalming. The gentleman proved to be Prof Deon Knobel who would be one of the key speakers later in the day. Deon Knobel is Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Cape Town.

As we spoke, it became clear that we shared the same view regarding the exhibition: here were the objects of death, but where were the subjects? Where was the ‘holding’ of the dying and those that were dead? As a previous ICU nurse myself, and as a previous state pathologist – who has performed over 20 000 autopsies in his 40-year career – both Prof Knobel and I felt a palpable absence in the visual imagery related to death. Every body (alive or dead) tells a story, has a relative, is connected and even interconnected with a network of others which is the humanitarian part thereof.

In a recent article in The Times, Aarti Narsee writes about the work done by the war photographer Mariela Furrer where she interviewed both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, as documented in her book My Piece of Sky. Furrer explains that:

When so many share their secrets with you, it is very sacred, you feel like you have been carrying it for them..

This is the closest to explaining what it feels like when ‘holding’ someone in death – as in nursing – or perhaps even whilst performing autopsies. It is co-sharing the humanity of the person in front of you.

Kathryn Smith & Penny Siopis
Kathryn Smith,  Penny Siopis  (and my mother)                          Photo: Sonya Rademeyer


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