CAPE TOWN — Under Cover of Darkness is a temporary exhibition on view at the Iziko Slave Lodge, a museum in Cape Town, South Africa. The museum building was erected in 1679 and, until 1811, it housed people enslaved and owned by the Dutch East India Company. The space served other functions after that, before its reincarnation as a museum, originally displaying artifacts from Dutch and British colonists. It was not until the 1990s that the museum began to focus on the history of slavery in South Africa, and in Cape Town, in particular.
Under Cover of Darkness was curated by Carine Zaayman and produced by Josie Grindrod, with Lynn Abrahams as the project coordinator at Iziko, and Tauriq Jenkins, an independent consultant for the exhibition. Their ambition for the exhibition is to examine the role of women slaves in the early colonial period in Cape Town, then known as the Cape Colony. It’s hardly surprising that the history of slavery in the colony, and that of racial oppression in general, has rarely focused on women. In my extensive research on the period of the Holocaust, I became acutely aware that its history was written almost exclusively by White Western European men. Even men living in the Eastern bloc were largely excluded as they had no access to Western publishers, and those doing research in the West could not see any of the materials housed in the East. With a few notable exceptions, no women wrote these histories, nor were women the focus of any. The Iziko Slave Lodge’s exhibition identifies the same issue and attempts to revise the predominantly male narrative of the history of slavery in South Africa.
Project coordinator Lynn Abrahams said by email:
Women under servitude were written about only when they intersected with the colonial order most commonly as property — bought or sold; when they broke colonial laws; when they were used for sex; or in the rare instance when a woman freed herself and became a property owner. The lives of these women, and so many others, passed unrecorded. The challenge of the exhibition was to find meaningful ways to bring these women’s lives and histories out of darkness and connect to present day, providing a lens on a colonial legacy that plagues us to this day.
The exhibition looks specifically at the lives of 12 women who passed through or lived in the Slave Lodge. The curators have chosen a wide range of narratives to bring to our attention. These include women who were sold at auction, women who escaped from slavery and were caught, a woman who bought freedom for her daughters, and women who were tried for various infractions — one of whom was drowned. Due to the time frame, there are no documentary photographs. Instead, the exhibition consists primarily of a series of texts, some juxtaposed with pictures of the landscape. There are huge challenges to mounting a museum exhibition with little visual material beyond variations on the wall texts’ graphic design. The exhibition is aided to some degree by artifacts in other parts of the museum, as well as the viewer’s awareness of standing in the very space where the subjects of these narratives resided.
In one account, we read about the life of Krotoa, who was not technically a slave, although she worked without pay as a servant; presumably this means she had some freedom of movement. She had an unusual life. Having learned both Dutch and Portuguese at an early age, she became a respected translator. She married a Dutch colonialist, had three children by him — and yet, at the end of her story, she is degraded, poor, and abandoned. While life expectancies were much shorter in the 17th century than today, it is still heart-wrenching to read that she died alone and in poverty at the age of 32.
As I walked through the exhibition, I became aware of a plaintive voice emanating from one of the rooms at the far end of the exhibition space. When I entered this room, I found myself in a dark space where a contemporary video was playing. The juxtaposition of this contemporary video with the more scholarly and historical presentations in preceding rooms was unexpected; I was unclear as to the connection between the video and the textual information. Elegy is an ongoing project by artist Gabrielle Goliath that has been performed in various locations. According to Lynn Abraham, it is a performance “wherein mourning is presented as a social and politically productive work — not in the sense of healing or ‘closure,’ but as a necessary and sustained irresolution.” As it turned out, the live performance had been presented at the exhibition’s opening and the video documenting that performance now plays in the same room.
The performance takes place in a darkened space in which a small platform is illuminated. Each performer, dressed in black, takes a turn stepping onto this platform as the vocalization continues. The effect is such that each performer seems sewn to the last by the continuity of sound. The expression to give voice to is severely overused these days, and yet that is exactly what the exhibition is attempting: to give voice to a group of women whose lives were written out of history because they were considered too marginal to bother with. It is no less hackneyed to observe that the voice, as an instrument, is the most life-affirming of all instruments because it is concomitant with the breath. Elegy not only stands on its own as a significant work, but breathes life into the rest of the exhibition. It creates a space for contemplation and mourning and beauty. And both Black and White women performers enact this mourning ritual together.
The racial divide is still extreme in areas of South Africa. Being there and visiting this exhibition brought me back to Lynn Abrahams’s words about “providing a lens on a colonial legacy that plagues us to this day.” In Elegy, Black women and White women enact a ritual of mourning together, for the deep suffering of one set of ancestors and in recognition of the egregious and unspeakable behavior of another set. That is what makes it so moving.
Under Cover of Darkness continues at Iziko Slave Lodge (Corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street, Cape Town, South Africa) through October 21. The exhibition was curated by Carine Zaayman and produced by Josie Grindrod, with Lynn Abrahams as the project coordinator and Tauriq Jenkins as an independent consultant.