Simon Gush: Welcome to Frontier Country
Stevenson, Cape Town is pleased to present Welcome to Frontier Country by Simon Gush, the artist’s first solo exhibition in the city since 2013.
This project started in 2016 as a simple idea for a short film based on an anecdote about my ancestor, Richard Gush. On arriving in Salem, South Africa, he deliberately built a church before building a house for his family – the act of work a way to claim his space in a new land. The project grew, and the turning point in my research came when I discovered that this church and the land around Salem were part of a controversial land claim making its way through the courts and still awaiting its final conclusion. The legal aspect of this land claim forms the basis of Land is in the Air, the first of three films on exhibition.
At this point the relationship between land and work became central to my project. A quick glance at the election posters earlier this year would have revealed that these are, separately, some of the most important issues facing South Africa. What I am interested in, however, is how historically and in the present day land and work are entangled; how the dispossession of land was linked to the creation of a workforce for the colony and, as I discovered after spending time with the community on the restituted farms, how work still affects and structures the processes of return.
Collaborating on the interviews with my neighbour, journalist Niren Tolsi, opened up stories I had not expected to find. Through his pavement-pounding process, on the third day of filming in Salem we found ourselves on the doorstep of the Madinda family, caretakers of Castle Farm. This was one of five farms restituted through the ‘willing seller willing buyer’ process before the claim made its way to the courts. For more than 10 years the Madindas have been trying to get the farm running. Their experiences and the obstacles they face form the basis of the third film, Working the Land.
I was particularly taken by Mongezi Madinda’s beautiful narration of the history of the land, his retelling of the story of Richard Gush and the ways this deviates from the settler myths that I read as a child. The second film, A Button without a Hole, contrasts Mr Madinda’s narrative with the stories repeated in books and a 1980 play by Guy Butler titled Richard Gush of Salem. This film explores the 19th-century dispossession in which my family played a central role.
The films work at the intersection of two modes of filmmaking – the essay and the documentary. Their tone was inspired by the work of Karl Marx. Reading his writings on primitive accumulation and enclosure, which formed the conceptual backbone of my project, I was struck by how beautifully he writes; how he seamlessly moves from the factual to the poetic, and how, with a wry humour, he speaks of the absurdities and ironies of the myths of capitalism.
The films are an aesthetic break for me, working with colour and an original score composed by Healer Oran. Added to this are new elements of voice-over and split-screen, using the two images at different times to express the vastness of the land, the contrasting viewpoints of the protagonists and the problematics of the sharing of the land.
While doing research for the project I made drawings and diagrams to get my head around the complex histories and processes that were at play. These drawings, often drafted on scraps of paper and in notebooks, were reworked digitally as many of them found their way into the films. In collaboration with Danger Gevaar Ingozi studio they have been developed into a series of prints for the exhibition.
Simon Gush: Welcome to Frontier Country runs until November 23, 2019, at Stevenson, Cape Town.
December 20, 2021
December 13, 2021