Exhibition | Reclaiming the mother tongue

Events / By ZAM Reporter
Photo: Judith Westerveld and Bradley van Sitters, initiator of the Khoikhoi Language Revitalisation Initiative in Cape Town Photo: Judith Westerveld and Bradley van Sitters, initiator of the Khoikhoi Language Revitalisation Initiative in Cape Town

In The Dream of a Common Language, artist Judith Westerveld explores the colonial dispossession of many South African languages.

As an artist and person who grew up and lives in both South Africa and the Netherlands, Judith Westerveld feels a responsibility towards how this history is told. Probing who is heard and seen, remembered and historicized in a postcolonial world. Language, in spoken, written and embodied form, plays an important role in her work. What if the Dutch colonists had learned to speak San and Khoe languages instead of imposing their own language upon those they encountered? And what if she would learn these languages today? Will the acknowledgement of, and attempt to converse with someone in their mother tongue allow for a different story to unfold, redressing that shared history and reimagining present and future interactions? These are formative questions that impelled the works that Westerveld created for this exhibition.

Central to Westerveld's artistic research process is engaging with various individuals and communities that speak San and Khoe languages, and with those that have reclaimed their lost mother tongue. A long history of violent colonial dispossession and suppression caused the decline and extinction of many of the languages spoken by the San and Khoikhoi tribes. From the languages that ceased to be spoken few traces exist. Some languages have survived, but most are not officially recognized and are extremely marginalised, often lacking an orthography and are only spoken by small groups of people scattered across the country. However, simultaneously a great fighting spirit exists among the descendants to safeguard their mother tongue and let it flourish, or to reclaim and relearn the indigenous tongues of their ancestors that they till now have been denied. Asserting their languages is a way to reclaim their heritage and cultural identity and to affirm their plight for social and political recognition as the first nations of southern Africa.

The works that Westerveld created for the exhibition arose from close collaborations with various people. Amongst others with Bradley van Sitters, initiator of the Khoikhoi Language Revitalisation Initiative in Cape Town, teacher of language Khoekhoegowab and heritage activist. Furthermore with Kapilolo Mahongo, master storyteller and leader of the !Xun community in Platfontein, as well as with Baka Jashula aka Obrigado, a rapper and musician who promotes and protects the !Xun language through his music. She also uses an unique audio recording from the Anthony Traill Khoisan Collection that captures a message from Mr. Mukalap in the now extinct !Ora language. Westerveld's audio-visual collages and performance based work foregrounds the voices and stories of these people, while also addressing her own position in the collaborative processes of language learning and storytelling. The artworks convey the stories of different San and Khoe languages and the people who speak them, and reflect upon and bear witness to the continuing impact of the colonial past in our present.

Opening: May 26  5-7 pm
On: May 26 to July 9
Where: Lumen Travo Gallery, Lijnbaansgracht 314, 1017 WZ Amsterdam
Openingstijden galerie: Wednesday - Saturday 1-6 pm.