Ouma Lunches: a research experiment by Clare Butcher

Ouma lunches - Lunch 3, August 23rd 2011


August 23rd  2011, Studio, Old Medical Building

Old fashioned milk tart - crustless (Mrs. Murray)

Cheese scones (with cream and jam – optional) (J.H.)

Maids of honour (A.Paxton)

Koeksisters (a gift from Jessica Brown)


Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf, Michael Chandler, Kabelo Malatsie, Phillip Johnson, Gabi Alberts, Darren van der Merwe, Jessica BrownAndrew PutterGeorge Mahashe

Music: Bing Crosby and Friends – a compilation from the late 1940s (brought by Kathryn)

The setting: To connect the tea discussion directly with my research around the British Council-initiated Exhibition of Contemporary British Paintings and Drawings of '47 and '48 which toured all around the Union, a number of enlarged, black and white photocopies of the artworks shown and press clippings from South African newspapers at the time, were displayed in the studio. Beginning with the tenuous temporal and spatial link of Johannesburg in 1948, I wished to draw attention to other similarities between the material social inscriptions and gender politics at work in "Bubbles" Schroeder's murder case (Kathryn Smith’s research topic) and the British exhibition. Additionally, I felt that Kathryn Smith's working method would be of particular relevance to my project as well as many of my colleagues currently building or reconstituting certain "open" archives from within recent South African history. "Open" in the sense that they were never "closed cases", and Kathryn’s forensic approach specialises in picking apart the inconsistencies, gaps and overlaps within the narratives she chooses to work with. How to resolve these elements as artistic projects which operate within a socio-historical vein, is a key concern of not only my, but our work in the Centre for Curating the Archive.

In our email correspondence prior to the Ouma Tea, I'd mentioned the notable presence of paintings (on the British exhibition) which would fall into the 'Interior with girl' category. These dark and often quite sombre scenes include those by Gwen John and Ethel Walker, Girl Reading and Portrait of a Girl with Dark Hair (respectively), Walter Sickert's The Mantelpiece, and Ben Nicolson's Portrait of the Artist's Wife.

Walter Sickert's 'The Mantelpiece' (left) and Gwen John's 'Girl Reading' (right) - Pages from the Exhibition of Contemporary British Painting and Drawing (British Council, 1947-1948)

Gwen John and Ethel Walker were indeed part of the contemporary London "scene" represented prominantly by the show. Despite having both studied at the Slade school of art and under such prominent painters as Whistler and Sickert, respectively, John and Walker were however two of only three women represented on the exhibition. Granted, Gwen John had seven works in the show, but these seemed to have garnered less attention by South African audiences than those works of her brother Augustus whose sell-out solo show in London is mentioned in the Cape Times on the 12th of May, 1948 (while the exhibition would have been [based on a report of mishandling of artwork made to the British Council] in Pietermaritzburg).[1] Gwen John was described by John Rothenstein (one of the British Council exhibition selection committee) in Volume One of his Modern English Painters three-volume artist history, as more 'methodical' than her brother, and despite studying under Whistler, she was someone who ‘stole through life and out of it almost unnoticed, 'as an individual who was 'chaste, subdued and sad.'[2] – what a contrast with the case of "Bubbles" Schroeder!

This article on Augustus John was displayed in the studio alongside selected excerpts from the Cape Times and Cape Argus newspapers (found in the South African National Gallery archives) depicting the female figures present within the South African contemporary art circles – Frieda Locke, Irma Stern, Ruth Prowse and others (who might only have been mentioned because of their fashionable corduroy at an opening of the New Group for instance).[3] Be that as it may, it is interesting to note the South African female presence in the administration and mediation of the British exhibition (though lunch-time lectures etc) on the one hand, and their role in the selection of work for the subsequent South African exhibition of 1948 (albeit a small one) as well as the number of female artists in that exhibition (12 artists and sculptor, Elza Dziomba).

The tea discussion [from notes made and an audio recording – sounds of Bing Crosby and friends in the background]

As usual we spent the first five minutes of the session discussing what was actually on the table. Pastries with almond and marmalade, scones with whipped cream, etc. And of course whether or not one should bake crustless milktart?

I then introduced the guests around the table, and why this topic might be of interest for them, as well as providing a description of the Ouma Lunch/tea concept itself. I outlined why Kathryn Smith and I had chosen to make a tea based on the "unholy alliance" of two events: one being the British Council’s Exhibition of Contemporary British Art which toured South Africa from 1947-8 and the other being, the murder of "Bubbles" Schroeder in Johannesburg in 1948. As seen in Kathryn Smith’s approach to the latter, these topics require a strategy of emersion into the social and cultural politics of the time as well as a great deal of speculation and investigation with the lack of comprehensive or consistent archives.

Kathryn's words towards the end of the session seem to sum up this motivation – of why we should look into history from the position of idiosynchratic detective:

'This story is a lens to understand the social milieu…and all the cultural products that the story has generated – myth, film, letters from the public – all of this stuff is really the interesting part about it. We're never going to actually reconstruct the event itself – the event is gone – but to quote Michael Ward,[4] he says:

'All societies inscribe their secrets and apparent natures on the objects of their material existence. The variety of acts of inscription is overwhelming in quantity and in kind. Some kinds of inscription are more formal and intentional than others. The more formal, the more susceptable to distortions and encoding. The more intentional, the more perhaps they lie. But these conceptions of formality and intentionality conceal and eagerness to surrender certain kinds of truths if they are approached with the right degree of cunning.'

With such a murky lens of a story, Kathryn was faced with the problem of what form it should take. Should it be a social history? How does one deal with the visual material? And what of Michael Ward’s social milieu – as reflected by the press, the level of consent with readers and the contractual nature, according to Ward, between readers and writers around the truth: the repression of facts for the good of social cohesion amongst a white population – this is complex stuff! Kathryn advocated that we look for the absences via a "history of efforts" to reinscribe certain versions of the story within public discourse. How can we move away from binaries of whodunnit? Rather look for the players and points of correlation.

Tracing these players and points of correlation has indeed required a degree of cunning in Kathryn’s research over the last years. She began with discussing the "problems" or rather creative differences arriving in the form of "heresay" and anachronistic euphemisms running throughout witness and press reports after the mysterious murder of young "glamour girl" "Bubbles" Schroeder in 1948. The subsequent 'cultural products' of film and paperback fiction have designated the lower class German-South African 18 year-old girl’s story as something similar to that of the American "Black Dahlia" case.[5] These cultural inscriptions over "Bubbles’s" death and of course, the inconsistencies between versions of the actual story keep us, said Kathryn, from ever being able to claim the act of fully reconstructing events of the time. The tremendous overwriting of the supposed perpetrator boys never actually charged and the total lack of imaging of "Bubbles" herself as an actual victim, opens up the space for an artist to work. The only possible reconstruction is a dramatic one.

photos by Clare Butcher

Setting that reconstruction in motion, Kathryn's presentation was particularly visual, including: maps tracing Bubbles’s final walk from a party late one night down Oxford Road on what had been the edge of Johannesburg; newspaper articles, soft-hued black-and-white portraits, crime-scene shots (in Bird Haven where Bubbles was found handbagless, with clean stockinged feet), book covers and magazine features; of course the bureaucratic paper trail in police archives is the bulk remainder of Bubbles's material inscription (as well as non-accessioned files discovered by Kathryn in the course of her research). Kathryn used these images to track the varied and mingling lines making up the unweildy history of that fateful night-drive, as well as the subsequent "hushing up" activities by the boys' well-connected families.

Kathryn detailed her quest, step by step in the perfect continuous tense of a real detective novel – steps which included conversations with a writer who'd contacted Bubbles’s spirit through a medium, and contracting a freelance researcher who scoured the police and court archives looking for a postmortem and court transcript. None of what they find, down to the very material qualities of the letters, the natural bleaching which had occurred on the pages of those official files, is lost on Kathryn. Bringing us to the present, Kathryn finished her presentation with images of the current development around the crime site – Bird Haven – and the state of Bubbles’s gravestone. Kathryn had found one of the accused, now all grown up *old, and had also identified a doctor who had known Bubbles. Her fantasy, she said, was to put these two characters, standing them as real people, into conversation with one another. But 'I am questioning the form of art as we know it – in relation to the form that this project should take. These images fit into another system of information…'

Andrew Putter made a valuable interjection, saying that Kathryn's ability to make images, and understanding of their reception as well as overall knowledge of scenography etc, means that Kathryn is capable of producing something that has the intensity of artworks but that sit in a space that is not art. 'That aren't accused of being art,' suggested Chris Nerf. 'Yes, but they're not something else,' replied Andrew, 'they have their own identity in relation to the context of this project – the spaces, how they're shown. The starting point is asking who is your audience? What are those actual bodies, those human bodies that encounter this story? What are those subjectivities? And once you ask those questions, you'll develop a logic for where those bodies might find these stories. And then you can begin to think about scale and form etc.' Kathryn then related her decisions about captioning in particular projects, and the reticence to label or classify images because of the kinds of default/fragmentory effects this might have on a viewer. How to we conjure a holistic environment? Perhaps it’s in developing visual rather than textual codes. Also, how do you avoid the nostalgia and romance of the grainy newspaper image from that so typically "Noir" period in 20thcentury history?

'It's about turning it,' said Kathryn, while still perhaps relying on that 'aesthetic base' as Andrew called it. How could we play upon visual registers and the presumptions they bring about – letting the viewer engage in some of that dramatic reconstruction and thus, continuing that "history of efforts" with "the right degree of cunning".

*A brief bio of Kathryn Smith: Born in Durban, lives in Cape Town. She is the Head of Fine Arts at the University of Stellenbosch and, as an artist, is represented by Goodman Gallery. Kathryn also initiated Serial Works – a when-I-feel-like-it presentation and publication platform run out of her apartment in Woodstock. She was one of the curators of the Dada South? exhibition at the South African National Gallery in 2010 which explored the crosspolinations of the Dadaists with avant-garde artistic practices in South Africa. This exhibition first alerted me to Kathryn’s work and with its incredible scope both logistically and imaginatively, was for me, a milestone in contemporary South African exhibition practice.

[1]According to British Council General Arts Committee minutes, 40th Meeting, Wednesday 26th May, 1948.

[2]Rothenstein, John. “Gwen John, 1876-1939,” in Modern English Painters, Vol. 1. London: Macdonald & Co. 1952.

[3]Cape Times, May 23rd, 1947.

[4]Michael Ward, White on black in South Africa: a study of English-language inscriptions of skin colour(1993)

[5]Born in Lichtenburg, Germany and moved to Johannesburg at the age of 4.


photograph by Clare Butcher

Lunch 1, May 6th 2011
Lunch 2, August 12th 2011
Lunch 4, August 26th 2011
Lunch 5 [tea], September 19th 2011
Lunch 6 [supper], September 20th 2011