Earth as Witness
by Heledd C. Evans
The earth around us is often understood as a means to an end. A material to burn up whilst we live out our lives. From a Western perspective, humans appear at the top of the hierarchy of things, with the earth somewhere below, without agency, or inherent meaning. The earth doesn’t remember. It’s just mud.
Dineo Seshee Bopape doesn’t see it this way. To her, everything is connected. Everything impacts upon and affects everything else. Sentient beings aren’t the only things to have memory – materials can remember too. Sometimes it’s visible. When we touch clay, we leave our fingerprints behind. As we walk, our footprints follow. When we stand upon the ground, the earth carries our weight. And when we dig it up, it leaves traces of itself beneath our fingernails. The earth remembers us. To me, Dineo’s work speaks to these traces, revealing the way life leaves its mark, and is held by the land we live on.
Earth has the potential to divide us, by both physical terrains and man-made borders. But it also has the potential to connect us, across generations, across continents, across time. In a conversation held for Artes Mundi 9 on Dineo’s work, artist and energy worker Evan Ifekoya spoke about taking earth from their birthplace in Iperu, Nigeria, to carry with them. A fragment of the earth that witnessed their birth accompanies them through their life, connecting their origins to their present moment. Tracing their journey.
When I was growing up, we never went abroad. I got my first passport when I was 17. I couldn’t quite comprehend the reality of elsewhere – I knew other countries existed, but I couldn’t integrate that into my experience of the world because it seemed so distant from my specific time and place. Other countries were a fantasy, an abstract location from a story. Curious about the concept, I would ask friends going on holiday if they could bring me a handful of earth back from their travels, as a means of living vicariously through the materials.
This idea sounds very poetic, but in reality, I had a chunk of the Berlin wall bought from a gift shop, and some dirt from the side of a motorway in Austria. Not the most aesthetically pleasing souvenirs, but I loved them. It felt so exciting – proof in the palm of my hand of a place I had never been. It wasn’t just proof though, it was a promise that I could go there myself.
The gravelly earth from the side of a motorway was probably not native to Austria. And the Berlin wall was made from bricks that were made somewhere else and transported there. Nothing stays put. The earth shifts beneath and about us all the time, be it by its own agency or our design.
For her work, Master Harmoniser, Dineo collected earth from sites connected to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and created a set of drawings emulating oceanic waves. For Dineo, these waves recall the scars on the back of Gordon, an enslaved man who escaped from a Louisiana plantation in March 1863 (1). From Casamance in Senegal, to the Mississippi River in New Orleans, what connects these gatherings of earth is their witness to moments of trauma. When people were violently taken from the land they both cared for and received from in return, the earth felt the wound. In her works, (Nder brick)…in process (Harmonic Conversions) 2020, and Gorree (song): Thobella: harmonic conversions, 2020, Dineo uses the soil from sacred sites in Wales and the River Severn to paint the walls and situate these physically distant histories in conversation with the land they now occupy.
If the earth remembers its past, I wonder what it thinks of its current residence? I wonder if the earth from Achimota Forest talks to the earth from Virginia? Are they in communion with the earth beneath them? There is both a resonance of all these stories coming together in one place, and a dissonance of them living in Cardiff, so far from home. Earth has been unsettled in the making of this exhibition.
Many people might not associate Wales with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and although its ties aren’t as strong as cities like Bristol and Liverpool, the ties exist. Dr Chris Evans, author of Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660 – 1850 describes how Wales was not wealthy enough to engage with the trade on its own shores, but instead involved itself through the exchange of materials and resources. In Swansea, Copper ore was mined, forged into bars and sent overseas to trade enslaved people with. In Montgomeryshire (Maldwyn) a coarse wool known as ‘Welsh plains’ was produced cheaply and exported to be made into clothing for those enslaved.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade ultimately contributed to Wales becoming a modern industrial nation. We cannot trace where these materials ended up, or know the true cost of how many suffered due to Wales’ involvement. But the scars run deep in the Welsh earth – Dr Evans aptly says, ‘It’s a landscape which has the stamp of slavery upon it’ (2). The earth remembers.
The earth is not just a vessel for trauma, a passive container. It also has the immense capacity to heal. Being amongst nature and with the earth has been proven to have huge benefits for our wellbeing, both physically, mentally, and spiritually (3). In this body of work, Dineo utilises the earth as a vital material through which to bring disparate times and locations into proximity, so that they might communicate the ways our histories touch. She invites us to listen.
Dineo amplifies these histories via transformation. Earth becomes a brick, a tribute to the sacrifice of the Nder women; earth becomes a dynamic canvas across the walls of the gallery; earth becomes lines upon lines on hundreds of drawings, tracing the memory of scars and unwilling voyages. Does this earth remember its origins? Its passengers? Does it feel the ground has changed beneath it? Can it hear our presence?
Maybe that’s why I am so moved by Dineo’s work – she doesn’t try to force the earth into a narrative direction, she doesn’t reduce or erase the journeys it has travelled or try to silence these constantly shifting connections. She carves more pathways, weaves more threads connecting materials and bodies from across time and space. She has brought earth from Capetown, South Africa, 8,308 miles from its home to the former Canton High School opened in 1907, in the space we now know of as Chapter. As we stand amongst this earth which bore witness to so much pain, we are close to those who were taken from it. And we know that many more people will cross its path again, standing where we have stood, drawing connections in the earth.
Heledd C Evans is a sound artist, arts facilitator, and radio host based in Cardiff. She is currently working as an Engagement Producer for Artes Mundi 9.