Johannesburg - The premise of Mats Staub’s long-term audiovisual project, 21 – Memories of Growing Up, is a deceptively simple one. Tape recorder in hand, the Swiss artist, who describes himself as a “listener”, asks participants to recall their coming of age: When did you turn 21? What happened during the course of that year? And how did you become an adult?
Three months later, he returns to film each of the participants listening to the audio recordings of their own memories for the first time.
The resulting video installation, which allows visitors to view and listen to the participants’ life stories, turns out to be a profoundly moving meditation on memory and storytelling.
“21 is a project about listening to each other,” Staub says. “To see how other people go through the same difficulties but in different circumstances.” The project began in 2012 when Staub discussed these questions with the residents of an old age home in Germany for the reopening of Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt am Main. Since then, Staub has travelled widely and held conversations with people of all ages and backgrounds in Belgrade, England, Holland, Switzerland and South Africa.
In 2015, he travelled to Cape Town and Joburg for the first time on a research trip with the express aim of producing a South African version of 21. He returned to Joburg twice the following year and teamed up with local collaborators; actress, screen writer and activist Nomonde Mbusi; and Maia Marie, co-founder of Create, an arts institution based in Westdene, Johannesburg. They subsequently produced the majority of the 19 video portraits for the South African edition.
21 had its local premier in Cape Town last month, and is now moving to Joburg.
“For myself and Nomonde, putting this work together was challenging and incredible. The stories are powerful and it was a privilege to sit with people and listen to them and take care of what they offered us,” says Marie. “We feel this exhibition is an opportunity for us to hear each other’s stories, as people living in Johannesburg, which is something we don’t do a lot.”
The Joburg presentation, however, departs significantly from previous exhibitions. The video portraits will be presented without the use of English subtitles. “There is a tendency in South Africa, and within cultural industries, to see African languages as always translatable, because where necessary they are translated for us,” Marie says. “We want to reflect something of the language diversity in our country without giving any one language a privileged position. Also, our decision is based on the fact that in Johannesburg a large population can access all the languages we are exhibiting in.”
The South African portraits will be presented with a selection from Switzerland, Germany, Belgrade, England and Holland.
Frau Winterstein, for example, one of the oldest participants and a former member of the League of German Girls, the female wing of the Hitler Youth, turned 21 in 1945, as the second world war was nearing its end. And Mr Simba only reached that milestone in 2015. Sometimes, however, the stories reflect the shared experiences of an entire generation, but they often feature examples of very private, distinct situations and experiences.
That said, although 21 encourages participants to remember their past, Staub says he’s “more interested in the present than in the past”. More specifically, the influence of the past on the present; how ordinary people have overcome the many difficulties they have had to endure.
In that way, 21 is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit. Though poignant in parts, resilience is a theme that threads through most of the video portraits. Despite the low points, Staub says, “when you see people, they survived … Everybody survived, you see them alive. You see them now and it’s encouraging.”
See it at Gallery 1989 at The Market Photo Workshop on 138 Lilian Ngoyi Street (entrance at Margaret Mcingana Street) from July 5 to August 6