“I like leaving things open-ended,” says Monique Pelser, as she stands in the centre of her art exhibition, Conversations with my Father. “Very layered but intentionally framed so that everybody who comes in has a different experience.”
At the entrance to the exhibition, portraits of Alsatians are printed on banner weave – the material of the national flag. A rustling recording plays through headphones that dangle before ghostly black-and-white landscapes. An old police uniform hangs over empty leather boots, opposite pixelated pictures of police violence. At the far end of the room, a smaller soundproofed room has bright white lights and a muted screenplay.
The majority of the exhibition consists of footage and objects that belonged to her father. His uniform hangs on the board. His photographs and recordings play on the television screen; his polaroids are projected onto the white wall, and his diaries sit in the showcase.
“It’s not about my daddy,” asserts Pelser. “It’s about patriarchy and South Africa through the figures of me and my dad.” Pelser’s father, and paternal grandfather, were both members of the former South African Police. Pelser’s father died in 2010, after battling a rare motor neuron disease. She has spent the last five years confronting her trauma through appropriating the archives that she inherited. “Of course it’s raw,” she says, “But I have been working on it for five years. The biggest key in photography is access. The most intimate access you have is your life, and the experiences you have been privy to. So I inserted myself in my work and used my father as an allegorical figure to open doors and portholes to issues.”
Her father’s photographs of police dogs in 1972 are complemented and contrasted by more recent screenshots showing police officers standing over, or abusing bodies. The arrangement emphasises how the atrocities of the past are reiterated and reproduced in of the present – especially within the police service.
Violence and trauma are more eerily explored at the back of the exhibition where a white room requires audience participation. Once locked inside the room, audience members read extracts from the screenplay, Take a Deep Breath. The screenplay rephrases the “I Can’t Breathe” campaign, which was a public response to the strangulation of Eric Garner by police officers in the United States. On a screen outside the isolating room, other viewers can see – but not hear – the person reading the script.
It’s an uncomfortable conversation – to see someone speak without making a sound, while hearing the voices of ghosts and guns.
Alumni Gallery, Albany Museum
Daily 9am – 5pm
Sarah Rose de Villiers
Have a look at our virtual tour of Monique Pelser’s Conversations with my father.
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