When the contemporary meets prehistory | Michelle Mlati on her experience as an intern for ‘The Mirror in the Ground’ exhibition

1 May 2015 - 09:30

Curatorship honours student, Michelle Mlati, writes about her experience as an intern for The Mirror in the Ground exhibition, curated by Dr Siona O’Connell. This exhibition opened in conjunction with the launch of Nick Shepherd’s book The Mirror in the Ground: archaeology, photography and the making of a disciplinary archive.

When the Contemporary meets prehistory

The blue moon truly came to light, which marked the occasion of our pilgrimage-like adventure through the flawless white dunes of Fish Hoek, towards the unearthed gravesite of black sand.

The curatorial interns, Amber Knox, Barnabas Muvhuti and myself were at war with the ground as we attempted to stabilise ourselves from sliding down the steep hills. It did not help that the whole path was covered in beach sand, which further made the start of our journey a physically challenging one. Eventually we resisted multiple inclines along the way and out battled gravity.

As the last to arrive at the cave, Amber and myself, almost breathless, found comfortable spots on the rocks and joined in on Nick Shepherd’s lecture on the site. It is not often that one gets the opportunity to be lectured in a prehistoric cave in the 21st century. This evoked the disjuncture between the past and the present when Nick used the cave as his powerpoint presentation, simultaneously referencing older images of the cave on his personal computer, well balanced on the rock podium. We definitely received a holistic visual experience.

Hiking up to Peers Cave taught me that conceptualising an exhibition is a whole other experience from embodying the pre-making of an exhibition. It finally all made sense why the curator of the show, Siona O’Connell had prepared more dessert than starters in our lunch packs. Brownies, croissants, cupcakes and macaroons became an essential!

Three weeks later, after a decent recovery from this hike… guess what, we had to go back and fetch sand. Ironically to my delight, I looked forward to it because we discovered a path with steps. During the second trip, to our surprise we found the cave occupied by three gentlemen chanting prayers, while a family of four rested on a rock before continuing on their hike. It was really fascinating to observe the cave as a living site while I dug up almost 5 kilograms of black soil to ensure we had more than enough for our box displays – just incase we had to come back again.

After mining the cave, the rest of the day was spent picnicking under the rock shelter, while absorbing the magnificent view of the Fish Hoek blue waters. This was followed by a micro exploration of the large rocks covered in an array of kaleidoscopic lichen, forming a natural palette. It was a lovely day filled with conversation, laughter and a beautiful way to end the hike, which was completed by a photo-shoot in the cave.

The precarious Cape Town weather was sometimes not on our side, which exposed us to the challenges of meeting deadlines — a reality of being behind the scenes and certainly a good learning experience. Although some ideas may not materialise we ensured everything else went smoothly.

Some days were spent quietly framing images with the friendly photographer Ashley Walters. Other days were spent running up and down with the ever so kind and helpful Nancy Dantas, while some were spent escaping Nick Shepherd’s iPad panoramas, and still others trying to get inspiration from Siona O’Connell who furthered my interests in the writings of Frantz Fanon. The black and white sand we had collected from Peers cave, exhibited in the box displays of The Mirror in the Ground was a reference to Black Skin, White Masks. This intellectually stimulating analogy has inspired my future research endeavors.

When installation day came, the ladder and paintbrush became my best friends. Although first nervous about my painting abilities, the exhibition designer, Carlos Marzia came to the rescue to direct me. This resulted in a flawlessly black painted wall to add to the minimalist finish of the exhibition. The three days of installation were incredibly relaxing, coupled by Samba tunes by Sergio Mendes and insightful lunch lectures with Carlos Marzia and the interns, whose company I thoroughly enjoyed.

One could obviously not be unaffected by the violation of the grave which we were mostly conscious of, if not always. The Mirror in the Ground (2015) exhibition made visible the lack of acknowledgement of the black co-worker, Adam Windwaai who assisted John Goodwin in archaeological excavations. This could be ascribed to the very little documentation that exists of black co-workers in the archive; relating their absence to their deceased ancestors (fellow natives) whom they reflect in the ground, while digging up the grave with the colonisers’ prismatic tools. Essentially the white man has kept the black man underground, ensuring their name never gets written, in any substantial way, into the books of history.

This whole experience taught me that one has to think as much as one looks and only that way can one get a sense of the nature of the epistemic violence inflicted by the discipline of archaeology.

Header image courtesy of Ashley Walters – Michelle Mlati (left) at the opening of ‘The Mirror in the Ground’ exhibition.