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Spatial Responses to Violence: Counter Monuments and Site-Specific Installations in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Jessica Hurd, Indiana University Bloomington, Summer Fellow 2010

My research at Dumbarton Oaks focused on the aesthetics of space in post-apartheid South African memorials and site-specific installation art. Nguni– and Bantu-speaking peoples of present-day South Africa share a long history of complex spatial strategies in village planning, negotiating land rights with the visible and less visible world, social stratification, war tactics, and memorializing the dead. In traditional burial practices, greater value tends to be placed on the topography or religious symbolism of a chosen burial site (i.e. cattle byre) than any tangible grave marker. Clues to a grave's whereabouts are often limited to loose piles of stones placed in memory of the dead (isivivane) or the burning and/or growing of symbolic plants (buffalo thorn tree, Lipia javanica, Helychrysum). According to ethno-botanists, many of these plants carry special healing and air purifying properties. Today, I am finding many architects who are incorporating these anti-monumental traditions into post-apartheid memorial design (Gert Swart at Isandlwana Memorial, Peter Abbo Hall at Rorkes' Drift Memorial, etc.). A medicinal garden and a modernized isivivane with ascending smoke (reference to incense) are also central features of Pretoria's Freedom Park.

Since the early arrival of European settlers in the seventeenth century, indigenous peoples of South Africa have often associated stone grave markers with visual signs of exclusivity and foreign occupation. For missionaries at the Cape, these monuments stood as religious claims to the surrounding region and its inhabitants. In the nineteenth century, grave and battleground markers also served to index colonial territory. In many ways, community spaces like the Freedom Park, located directly across from Piet Retief's massive, symbolic cenotaph (Voortrekker Monument), function as spatial counter-reactions to pre-existing, monumental forms. My work has taken an interesting turn as I've discovered the darker sides of some community spaces such as the Kirstenbosch Garden and Kruger National Park. Both spaces played instrumental roles in securing white political ties to the land and its resources.