What follows is a rough approximation of a speech that I gave on 28 September 2014 to open an art exhibition — entitled ‘Liminal Capital’ — at the Tina Skukan Gallery in Pretoria. My friends Magdel van Rooyen and Maricke du Plessis have done an amazing job of curating the exhibition, and it was really lovely to be able to offer a short, highly incomplete reflection on the city I grew up in.
There’s an old joke from the communist era about a man who was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew that censors would read his mail, so he told his friends: “Let’s create a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, then what I’m saying is true. If it’s written in red ink, you can be sure that what I’m saying is false.” A short while later, the first letter from the man arrived and everything was written in blue. It read: “Everything is really wonderful here. There are movie theatres and playgrounds, and the apartments here are the epitome of luxury. The stores are full of good food. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.”
I know that we’re not living in a communist era, even if many of our politicians have communist aspirations, but I love the ambiguity at the end of the joke because it reminds us that often our relationship with places and spaces is just that: ambiguous. But then there is an alternative view, as there always is. Robert Louis Stevenson has pointed out that “[s]ome places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks”.
So what is this place, Pretoria, saying to us? Is the message ambiguous or distinct? Is there a message at all?
Whenever I think of the idea of a city, I think of China Miéville’s novel The City and The City, which takes place in two cities that occupy exactly the same geographical space. And yet the two cities are perceived by the various denizens to be different places. Every resident must dutifully unsee the other city. This is to say that they must actively fail to acknowledge the existence of the other city. As a consequence, they learn to recognize things as belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. They acknowledge the unacknowledgeable and unacknowledge the acknowledgeable. If an individual ignores the imperative to unsee the other city, he or she is deemed guilty of a terrible crime calledbreaching — a crime that is considered worse than murder in Miéville’s tale.
Maybe this can be taken, at least partly, as a metaphor or parable about our own relationship with Pretoria. Are there spaces in Pretoria that we see, and are there spaces that we unsee?
The answer must, I think, be yes.
Clearly, a borderland between the two cities is real. There are two cities, or perhaps more than two cities. Each city within this one city is delineated by borders, thresholds, boundaries. I guess places are always understood in terms of liminality. There is a betweenness that we are always negotiating, fumbling towards, stumbling into. And this means that the simple idea of inhabiting a space or dwelling in a place is always far more complex than what we usually recognize.
When I think of Pretoria, I think of it as the place I grew up in, but I also think of it as the place I now live. There are two cities, both cities in constant flux: one in the past and one in the present. But the place I grew up in and the place I now live are two different places. Many thresholds have been crossed. Many new boundaries have been constructed and have fallen away, leaving me to question where the one city ends and the other begins.
Perhaps I can illustrate this sense of a constant becoming by referring to my experience of one place within this place. When I was a kid, my parents would often take my siblings and me to the Hatfield Bakery in Duncan Street to buy bread. It was the best bread in Pretoria — it tasted like cake. Of course, as an added bonus, the bakery also made actual cake. And what made this food even better was the fact that we as a family knew the Andrews family that owned and ran the bakery.
Back then Pretoria felt to me very much like a small town. The Duncan Street that the Hatfield Bakery was in was a narrow road with only two lanes, one going in either direction. But things changed, as they always do.
The boundaries shifted.
I’m not exactly sure of the order in which they changed, but a few things happened. At one point, the Hatfield Bakery, which I think had been in the same old building for over fifty or sixty years, had to move to another building, one right next door to the old building. At another point, at least as I have the story, a certain businessman discovered that the name of the Hatfield Bakery hadn’t been trademarked because such legalities weren’t necessary when the bakery had opened all those years ago. So he — whoever he was — decided to steal the name and the visual identity of the bakery for his own gain and trademark it for a bakery that he then opened in what was then the new Hatfield Mall.
This meant that the Andrews family were forced to change the name of their bakery — and this, despite the fact that the name was so intimately connected with their own family heritage. Then, things changed once more, and the newly named Five Loaves Bakery had to move again, this time across the road to what has got to be one of the ugliest buildings in the Hatfield Area, or possibly Pretoria.
Later, for various reasons, the bakery finally closed down. And even later, Duncan Street was expanded; and, finally, just a year or so ago, it too had its name changed to something else. The street that carried my name became something else. A friend of mine said that when you get a new house, you want to be able to put your own furniture into it and hang up your own curtains. Is that what all the renaming has been about — hanging up new curtains?
Now, in this present-day Pretoria, I don’t go to a bakery run by family friends. Instead, I go to one or more chain stores where bread is baked in a factory, packaged in plastic bags by people I have never met and distributed without any semblance of personality.
It’s hard not to let nostalgia take over, right?
I often think of my memories of Pretoria as more authentic. Sometimes the quaint Pretoria that I knew as a child feels more personal than the sprawling monster of traffic jams and road works and horrific malls that it seems to have become. There was a city and there is a city. And the message of this city remains both clear and ambiguous.
But I have recently come to understand something about this liminal capital — this ever-shifting, ever-evolving beast of a city. The liminality is not just about the place, but has always been primarily about my own subjective experience of the place. Pretoria has changed but I have changed too. Boundaries and borders have shifted inside me. Because that’s what happens in life. We all have to cross thresholds, every day.
Sometimes you just have to walk through a door.
And brings me to a second message of the parable located in China Miéville’s story. A place can only ever be properly understood from the inside. From the outside, it’s just a thing. But from the inside, understood from this internalized space within the self, it’s more like a human being — something complex and loaded with personality. There is a paradox here, of course: Pretoria is not located in Pretoria, but in an intermediation between people who live and breathe together in a shared environment defined and redefined by ever-shifting boundaries. Pretoria is located, I think, in a dialogue. It is located in the between, just as we are.
What we have here at this exhibition is an expression of this simple fact.
We have a selection of works by artists who have offered personal views of their own unique perspectives on the city. There are images of pigeons — an ocean of bubbling feathers indicating a city always in flux, set against a backdrop of seemingly immovable buildings. There are crumpled maps — signs of an era before GPSs and also of an era before various names were changed. There are images taken from fragments: a statue of our most recognizable national icon combined with images of actual places in this city. There are bridges and there are yellow beacons, sculptures and other images and abstractions too, all reminding us of the fact that we live in a city that we cannot and must not unsee.
We Pretorians should all find ourselves guilty of the crime of breaching that Miéville tells us about in his novel.We must acknowledge that there are different perspectives on Pretoria. It is one place but it is also more than one space. It is singular, but it is also multiple.
There is a message and the message is clear. There is a city. But I hope you will also get a sense from these images of the genuine ambiguity that we find ourselves forced to confront. There is a city. It’s a wonderful place, but it’s sometimes difficult to find the right ink — difficult to find just the right way to draw lines, offer words and create images. Although, having said that, the artists who have contributed to this exhibition seem to have done pretty well nonetheless.