An image from ‘A Place Away’: Sivpersad cousins 90s

Q&A: On water’s memory, indigo and sugarcane

By Youlendree Appasamy and Kate’Lyn Chetty

On the 160th anniversary of the arrival of South Asian indentured labourers to South Africa, artist Kate’Lyn Chetty opened her Masters exhibition, A Place Away, at the University of Johannesburg. In the body of work, she reflects on family history, land, nostalgia and, of course, indenture histories. Kate’Lyn and I are both members of the Kutti Collective, and thought it’d be nice to chat about her work, artistic process and Frozen 2.

Youlendree Appasamy (YA): In A Place Away, you reflect on and represent Sawoti, a farming community in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. How and when did you first hear of this place? What caught your attention?

Kate’Lyn Chetty (KC): The first time I heard about Sawoti was in 2006 when my grandfather died, and they mentioned it as his place of birth. It was also the one place both sides of my family had in common, as they both lived there between 1930 and 1950.

YA: Many people are unaware of indentured labourers’ role in South African agricultural history, especially in KZN, as many labourers were allocated plots of land post-indenture. Could you speak more on this idea of land and pastoral fantasies in post-indentured life?

KC: The import of indentured labourers from India came to an end in 1911. After indenture ended , both my maternal and paternal families left the farms where they worked as labourers to take up residence in Sawoti, an area 91 kilometres from Durban, in the south of the province now known as KwaZulu-Natal. For many families the land they received after indenture may have seen their newfound land as a place of belonging especially after 1947 when India denounced all Indians born outside of India as having roots in India.

YA: Your use of family photography is tender and is representative of a lot of South African Indian homes — how do you curate these images (is it based on colour, composition, texture, subject matter etc. or something else altogether)?

KC: The works were grouped according to colour and content.

View of the exhibition

YA: Let’s talk about the blue tones you use! What does the colour connote to you, and why its emphasis in your work (and the exhibition space itself)?

KC: While my cyanotypes are not dyed brown to evoke the sepia tones that are seen in older photographs in the family collection, they have a similar loss of detail and recognisability. I intended to mimic the kind of tonal values that occurred in a series of polaroids (taken on an instamatic camera that prints them instantly) that I took in Sawoti. However, when I started translating the images into possible artworks, I struggled to integrate colour and form in the artworks. Unlike the old photographs, my prints are kept either blue or black and white, with hints of blue in the digital prints. Blue is a recurring colour in these works, from my cyanotypes to the use of dyed paper. Blue, or rather indigo, which was imported from India to Europe, means ‘Indian’ in Latin. Like the obsolete language, the use of obsolete, or perhaps old-fashioned, printing processes on a large scale is my means of reclaiming the family narrative and ensuring that it continues.

YA: When I came to see the exhibition, you spoke about accidental ghosts embedded in some artworks — tell us more about these spectres and how they relate to your praxis?

KC: Perhaps a more interesting, yet accidental, element in Sawoti temple interior is the ghost-like image that resembles my grandfather’s face. In a close-up it would appear as if my Thatha’s face is situated between the deities that form part of the temple’s interior. This ghost-like occurrence may be seen in between the two figures within the arch.

Sawoti temple interior

It reminded me of [Roland] Barthes, who notes the disappearance and simultaneous appearance of his deceased mother’s figure in photographs as significant, as she is no longer present in real life: this ambiguous disappearance and reappearance through photographs creates an immortalised representation. Barthes’ account of his mother’s death and the rediscovery of images from her childhood acts as a gesture to the passing of time. These images act as the only physical trace of his mother. As with the death of Barthes’ mother, the appearance of my Thatha in the cyanotypes could be interpreted as the re-emergence of a lost family member through photographs.

YA: You use a variety of media — I’m particularly drawn to the sugarcane paper and metal etchings. How did you come to work with these materials?

Jhunna’s Discharge Certificate

KC: The use of materials as a way of linking my practical work to my family’s history extends also to digital prints on sugarcane paper. I found Jhunna’s Discharge Certificate at the bottom of a trunk in Raju Nana’s possession, which originates from the former family home in Sawoti. The torn and aged document, which has been taped together with box tape in an attempt to preserve and keep intact a slice of family history, has a musky smell that may be explained by its time at the bottom of Jhunna’s trunk, which she arrived with as an indentured labourer from India in 1907.

There are details still visible on the aged page; her name, height and father’s name are seen as a faint trace. The official stamp and title are easily visible, but other information is not. Significantly, reference to the presentation of Sawoti land to her, following two terms as an indentured labourer, is missing or obscured by thick box tape. Once printed on the rough surface of handmade sugarcane paper, which I produced myself, the archival document obscures further vital information. Jhunna’s name is no longer as visible as it once was; it appears blurred and the colours have separated into small dots suggestive of the printing process used: the flatbed printer had to be set at a significant distance from the paper as it could not process the grain and strands from the sugarcane. The use of sugarcane paper in this artwork is perhaps an ode to Jhunna’s time on sugarcane plantations. Without her sacrifice and years spent working for a minimum wage in less than desirable conditions in a foreign land, she would not have been awarded land in Sawoti.

YA: What’s your favourite story or random fact learnt through your MA research?

KC: In the Disney film, Frozen 2 Olaf states: “Water has memory. The water that makes up you and me, has passed through at least 4 humans and/or animals before us. And remembers everything”. Although this is scientifically incorrect, the sentiment is persuasive because it is emotive and personal. Olaf’s claim that water has memory derived from the French immunologist, Jacques Benveniste, who claimed in a paper in the journal Nature, that antibodies and subsequent molecules of water have effect cells even after being diluted. Although the theory has since been disproved by numerous scientists, the notion that the water that runs through Sawoti could possibly be found in my body is, for me, an exciting connection to the lost home.

YA: Where can we follow you + your work?

KC: On Instagram - @katelyn_portfolio

Watch the exhibition opening 👇🏽

*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

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