Revealing the bones that underpin our sense of identity and mortality
Penny Siopis's film champions respect and dignity for the living and the dead, writes Lucinda Jolly
Since the earliest communities of people formed, the human skull and bones — with their implication of mortality and eternity — played an important role in humanity’s cultural, spiritual and artistic lives.
Skulls have the power to attract and repel, often simultaneously. The earliest example of art involving a human skull is the Jericho skull from the Neolithic period, found in modern Palestine. Using plaster to suggest features and shells for eyes, it is thought to have been part of ancestral worship.
Western paintings are peppered with images of skulls. They are present in medieval icons to symbolise the realms of hell, in the 16th-century tradition of vanitas symbolising life’s impermanence, and in most major art movements.
The treatment of human remains is often an indication of a society’s regard for the living. In inhumane systems such as slavery, colonialism and apartheid, human beings were regarded as useful but highly expendable beings.
Some of the earliest recorded incidents in SA of the appropriation and misappropriation of human remains occurred in the 19th century. Xhosa King Hintsa kaKhawuta’s skull was taken to Britain as a trophy of triumph during the frontier wars.
Sara Baartman was taken to Europe under false pretences to be put on display as an oddity. After her death, her skeleton and body cast were displayed at Paris’s Museum of Man and removed only in 1974.
And the bodies of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar, a Khoisan couple, were illegally taken to Europe to be studied. Over the past few years their remains have been repatriated from Europe and given proper burials. Many countries have now banned the trade in human remains.
Artist and filmmaker Penny Siopis, whose work includes the short film, Lay Bare Beside (2015) and the ossuary at the Prestwich Place Memorial in Green Point, Cape Town, produces work that reflects a curiosity with paint as material, found objects, memory as matter and the politics of the body.
Ossuaries are places where skeletal remains are kept, often due to insufficient burial space. It is thought that the Zoroastrians of Persia were the first to use them about 3,000 years ago. Ossuaries are all over Europe. The Prestwich ossuary was not created because of insufficient space, but because an agreement between various parties about where the remains should be housed was difficult to reach.
Former Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo said the memorial was a pledge to "create a fitting memory" for the slaves who built Cape Town.
Green Point was a colonial burial ground with many unmarked graves.
Because research on the remains is forbidden to prevent further violence to the bodies, the identity of the individuals unearthed there is unclear. The bones are believed to be the remains of slaves, other black people and washerwomen.
The remains — between 180 and 270 years old — were discovered during the construction of opulent apartments in Green Point. They are now stored in 2,500 plain cardboard boxes similar to those used to store skeletal remains at research institutions — on shelves behind locked louvre doors.
While Siopis has never visited the Prestwich Place Memorial ossuary, she unexpectedly visited one in her ancestral home in Greece. A search for the grave of her British grandmother’s dead child led her there. She did not find the child’s remains. The keeper of the ossuary explained that because he hadn’t been baptised, he was not considered a subject.
To create her films, Siopis gathered random 8mm home-movie strips from arbitrary auction lots and flea markets. She stitched disparate pieces together around a specific narrative.
Lay Bare Beside uses film shot in Africa in the 1960s. Siopis also features, burying two skulls in the early part of the film and at the end. It was made as part of a transnational research project and exhibition, called Boundary Objects, at the Kunsthaus Dresden in Germany.
Siopis says the project’s focus was on the restitution of human remains. She explored remains whose historical origins were tied to the racist science of colonial geographies and ethnographies. These remains are still housed in museums and medico-historical collections in Europe and Africa. Her brief was to make a work about the repatriation of human remains.
Siopis’s processes are intimate and personal. She views "the personal as political".
She says the film reflects her experience of 'wrestling with what a proper burial means, not knowing the particular ancestry of the bodies’ skulls. As an artist you are speaking for yourself.'
So rather than produce an arms-length critique or a distant discursive work, she suggested a narrative around the two skulls. This provided her with a way of engaging with what she terms "my own complicity".
The narrative of Lay Bare Beside came from her late husband, the artist Colin Richards. He was deeply concerned about the ethics of owning two human skulls from his time as a medical illustrator during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work on repatriation of human remains. The skulls troubled him deeply, but he died before a decision could be made on what to do about them. The film also deals with Siopis’s grieving process for her husband.
Responses to Lay Bare Beside have ranged from finding it macabre, questioning Siopis’s "assumption" of a connection between the two skulls by burying them together, to questioning whether she had the right to use the imagery of the found films, which include segments depicting black workers.
She says the film reflects her experience of "wrestling with what a proper burial means, not knowing the particular ancestry of the bodies’ skulls. As an artist you are speaking for yourself."
Duane Jethro, of the Centre for Anthropological Research for Museums and Heritage at Humboldt University in Berlin, says the film is an "artistic representation" that suggests the "intersection between personal and social restitution".
The skulls in the film raise questions about "ideas of ownership, identity, ideas of belonging and ideas of restitution" — in general and in the context of post-apartheid SA, he adds.
"The skulls also stand against a deep background of the dubious and sometimes criminal collecting of human remains that took place in the late 19th century and early 20th century, reportedly for scientific reasons and purposes," says Jethro.
"We have to think about the deep history of violence against black bodies under the pursuit and guise of scientific knowledge when thinking about human remains in terms of museums," he says.
Siopis’s film shows a private burial for the two skulls.
Jethro wonders about the "wider social implications" of such a burial, considering "when you bury someone, what you are doing is restoring them to a wider social body". For him, the central issue of the film is the "restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner".
Jethro and Siopis agree that issues around the Prestwich Place Memorial ossuary are complex and difficult because of, among other issues, the burial process and the importance of fulfilling the "different cosmologies" of the deceased — as Jethro points out. He suggests that the tension in which the ossuary is held is "not entirely" a bad thing.
"It’s effective insofar as it raises a productive ongoing tension in relation to these remains that require really difficult answers," he says.