Writing on Water

A still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeuneArtist Hanien Conradie discusses a collaborative film of her ritual encounter with Devon’s River Dart and her work with places where nothing seemingly remains of their ancient knowledge. Work that seeks more reciprocal relationships with the natural world.


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes + 3 minutes video


Introduction

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe: I met Hanien Conradie when she gave a presentation at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium at Dartington Hall in Devon, in June 2018. Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River, recounted the unique relationship she had built with the clay of the Hartebees River in Worcester, South Africa: “the same clay my mother played with as a child.” Her talk also featured a premiere of a film made with fellow artist, Margaret LeJeune, showing Hanien’s performance in the Dart, the local river at Dartington, during both artists’ residencies there just before Liquidscapes.

This post, which begins with that film, Dart, is based on an email conversation we had in September 2019, after Hanien had been able to share the film following its premiere in South Africa.

Dart – a film by Hanien Conradie and Margaret LeJeune from Hanien Conradie on Vimeo.

A place of peace and healing

Your film has three phases, for me: the reading of Eugene Marais’s poem Diep Rivier in the original Afrikaans; the rereading of it in English; and the silence in between. For an English-only viewer, the unknowability of the original reading is powerful, and forces me to hear the striking beauty of the sound of the words alone, in your voice. What for you is the value of the silence between the two languages?

The performance in the river began as I wrote the Afrikaans version of the poem onto the river’s surface. It was a way to introduce my ancestry and me to the river. What happened in that moment was that I became very emotional.

Firstly, I had just come from a severe drought in Cape Town where we had a daily ration of 50 litres of water. Being in such an expanse of water after the scarcity was an overwhelming relief.

Secondly, I had a painful ancestral history with England. The British Empire and Afrikaners fought each other between 1899 and 1902 during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers fought a guerrilla war and the men gathered their supplies from Afrikaner homesteads and farms. As part of what was referred to as the ‘Scorched Earth’ policy, the British army burnt down Afrikaner farms, killed their livestock and put the surviving women and children in concentration camps. About 30,000 Afrikaners died of exposure, starvation and disease in these camps. Most of the dead were children. As a child born about 70 years later, I heard many of the elderly people speaking in bitter ways about the British. The rift between English and Afrikaner South Africans could still be felt as children from both cultures harassed each other with hate speech during my years of schooling.

I studied in English, had made many English friends and my life partner is British. I believed that this history was not really a part of my personal pain anymore. However when I entered this English river and spoke this very old Afrikaans poem (written about 10 years after the war), I was surprised to find myself sobbing. In the water of this dark river pain older than my life years surfaced and came to a place of peace; the river and I let all the hatred flow to the ocean and I allowed love to be born again.

I did not plan the silence between the two languages consciously, but in hindsight I believe it communicates a transformation that happened within me and hopefully is still rippling out into the world I live in. The silence together with the rippling effect that I, a mere speck, have on the environment, speaks volumes about the power of one individual to heal communal pain.

Joyful dance with the river

The film itself, of course, is continuous and, superficially, seems unchanged across the three different phases. But the drone pulls out further overhead, and then comes back in, and your movements on the water — the drawing on its surface — change also. Our view of you — in close up in the water and then in long shot with the water and then closing in again — is always literally an overview, from a different plane (place) to your own experience in and with the water. That’s only possible through collaboration with another artist. Was that viewpoint, that collaboration, always intended for your work here? Or did it emerge from a process of working with the river beforehand? 

You are quite right to point out that the experience of the viewer and my experience in the river is substantially different. That is why this film is a full collaboration between the American artist, Margaret LeJeune, and myself. She managed to capture the poetry of the moment in a meaningful way; which is an artwork and skill in itself.

After I performed the ritual of writing the poem in the water I felt light and elated, and in a powerful but prayerful mode. I started beating and creating circles on the surface of the water. I lost my sense of self in this joyful dance with the river. Thus I failed to notice Margaret, who was quietly observing me from the river’s bank. As I emerged from the river she requested to film me with her drone. So, the next day we came back to the river and I re-enacted my ritual.

A still from the film, 'Dart', shwoing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The beauty of our collaboration was there was very little planning, discussion or editing to this documentation. We had a subtle attunement to each other that enabled the transmission of the feeling of the ritual to the viewer. Margaret and I previously discussed our overwhelming nostalgia toward the European natural world. We both come from places that were colonised by our European ancestors. I sensed that we both struggle with feelings of displacement, colonial guilt and a search for belonging. It was Margaret who saw something that I as the performer couldn’t see: the far-reaching ripples I was creating. It was through her poetic perspective that the documentation of the performance obtained its power.

A loss of place

You originally showed the film at the Liquidscapes symposium very soon after making it, and your talk there focused on an experience revisiting a river and farm with your mother, taking her back to her childhood home. Your experiences of that river up to then were through her memories, which ‘became mythological stories’, but her return to the farm and the river with you proved to be depressing. It seems to have been an experience of erasure — of the life of the land and of the river, and even of the water’s sound that had been so strong in your mother’s experience and memory. Maybe even of memory itself, as something pure. It seems that the land’s natural state — and then its later much-altered state, of your mother’s experience — was ephemeral, whereas in your film it is your signature on the river, your drawing in it, which is ephemeral, although deep.

My talk at Liquidscapes told the story of the damaged South African river from the perspective of a person of a hybridised European culture (Afrikaans culture). I weave a tale out of observations in the current natural world and past memories in an attempt to show the inextricable connection between nature and culture; how nature reflects culture and how a dislocated culture can create a loss of place.

The nationalist Afrikaner culture of my mother’s childhood had the reputation that it represented people of the soil; ‘boere’ (farmers) who loved nature as pastoralists. On closer inspection however, I realised that these memories of my mother’s were created within a context where the European culture and its crops were imposed onto the indigenous environment. This lack of understanding of the functioning of indigenous natural ecosystems has resulted in tremendous ecological damage and loss of indigenous fauna, flora, cultural knowledge systems and the loss of the river that once roared through the land. Like the sound of the river, my mother’s childhood culture has disappeared.

Today Afrikaner culture is in a process of mutation to an unknown end. The question I sit with is how do I enable restoration and healing to these damaged places? How do I find another way to relate to the natural world that is reciprocal; that understands human beings as an aspect of this living community of beings? 

My ritual in the River Dart was an attempt to find an answer for this new way of relating. The writer of the poem, Eugene Marais, had a very unique way of relating to the natural world. As a fellow Afrikaner, I call on his wisdom through reciting his words.

So yes, there is something ephemeral in my experiences with both of these rivers. And perhaps that is invoked by the nature of rivers as signifiers of the passing of time. Even though my ‘drawings’ on the surface of the river are ephemeral, their impact reverberates through my life as I actively work on transforming my personal culture to meet the natural world in a very different way to my ancestors. There is thus something that is infinitely rippling out from these ephemeral experiences that I hope will lead to transformation.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' showing artist Hanien Conradie Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
A still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

The response of the natural world

You wrote in your blog post retelling your encounter with the Breede River, “My challenge was to find ways to connect to a place where the main factor was loss.” There you did this by meeting with local people and experts who could help you see what the natural and indigenous state of the river might have been, before European settlement. Working later on the Dart, was there also a feeling of a landscape of loss? I wonder how that place seemed to you as a new visitor and as you immersed yourself in it and in the work?

In my work with places where loss and damage is so severe that nothing seems to remain that holds the ancient knowledge of the place, I try work with the elements that are present such as the earth of the dry river or in this case the water of the river. When I encountered the River Dart, I was initially completely seduced by the expanse of water because it was lacking in the place I came from. As I got to know it better and read its history I realised that it is suffering its own losses and damage. If we as humans can start seeing bodies of water as entities with their own life and rights, I think these problems can be solved.

Similarly to my experience with the clay of the dry river, I found through relating to the River Dart, a great generosity coming from the natural world. I would have thought that like humans, the natural world would shut itself down and stop communicating with those who harm it. It has however been my experience that by earnestly and as honestly as possible communicating with natural entities such as rivers, I have gained much insight, humility and healing.

In your account of working with the Breede and its clay, you found it did not behave as you expected. Was this also true in the Dart? 

I remember when I first entered the River Dart I sat quietly in the water looking out over the landscape and I listened attentively to ‘hear’ the river speak. After being still for a substantial time, the sceptic in me said ‘this river is not going to relate to you, you are wasting your time.’ Discouraged, I turned my gaze down to my body that was half-submerged in the water. I noticed that the silt of the river had settled like dust on my skin, tracing every hair and the curve of my body; I noticed that the little minnows were nibbling the skin of my feet. I was reminded again, that we are inextricably part of nature; that the separatist way we think about the natural world is what causes our incapacity to ‘hear’.

In terms of my performance, the idea was to capture the white foam lines made through ‘drawing’ with sticks on the surface of the dark black water. It was only because we had the overhead perspective of the drone that we could see the immense impact of my ‘drawings’ as they rippled out into a sphere far greater than the speck that was my body. Again, I was surprised with the far more complex outcome of my simple initial intention. Similarly to the experience with the river clay, I offered some of my energy and the natural world responded with a depth of wisdom I couldn’t have fathomed on my own.

Natural world - a still from the film 'Dart' Photograph by Margaret LeJeune
Natural world – a still from the film ‘Dart’
Photograph: Margaret LeJeune © 2018

Find out more

Dart, the film Hanien and Margaret LeJeune created in the River Dart, was first shown at art.earth’s Liquidscapes symposium in June 2018, following their residencies with the River Dart for The Ephemeral River, a Global Nomadic Art Project sponsored by the Centre for Contemporary Art and The Natural World (CCANW) and Science Walden / UNIST. The film was then shown as part of Raaswater (‘Raging Waters’), Hanien’s exhibition at Circa Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2019.

You can read a precis of Hanien’s paper to the Liquidscapes symposium at her blog post The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River. Here, she describes her work in the clay of the Breede River Valley following her visit to ‘Raaswater’ there with her mother, and the inspiration she takes from the writing of deep ecologist and ecophilosopher Arne Naess on ideas of place.

You can also explore the work of American artist Margaret LeJeune, including Evidence of the Dart, a selection of images Margaret created during her own residency at The Ephemeral River. “Our goal was to create work inspired by notions of ephemerality and the landscape of the River Dart.”

Eugène Nielen Marais (1871-36) was an innovative Afrikaans writer who had studied medicine and law and later investigated nature in the Waterberg area of wilderness north of Pretoria and wrote in his native Afrikaans about the animals he observed. You can explore some of his poetry in Afrikaans (and some translations into English) at Poem Hunter.

Liquidscapes, a book of essays, poetry and images reflecting the Liquidscapes international symposium at Dartington Hall in June 2018 is published by art.earth, edited by Richard Povall. The book includes Hanien’s talk, The Voice of Water: Re-sounding a Silenced River.