Most of our memories are created before we are 6 years of age. They form the foundation of our neural networks. And by implication, they are the basis of who become. But we can remember barely a handful of these memories even with the help of visual or aural prompts. We are more capable of remembering and understanding a complex occurrence that happened yesterday. We have very little insight into what motivates us to behave in specific ways in certain situations.
In recent times the science of epigenetics (inherited memories) has advanced greatly. Scientists have found tags on our DNA which transfer memories from one generation to another. However the tags need to be activated and this process has yet to be understood. We do know, that we can inherit memories from our ancestors of things, places, people and events which we have not personally experienced.
During the course of doing art therapy with clients, I have become interested in how memories affect our lives. Also, how our perception of these memories changes over time and how this changes the way we live our lives.
When we are psychologically healthy, we feel contained. In other words, we feel safe as opposed to fragile; secure in that the world is not all bad; in control of ourselves and to a lesser extent our environment; robust and able to deal with some adversity; and positive, in that we are prepared to take some risks in order to live our lives to the full.
In my art I have created a metaphor for our many memories which have made us who we are. The modern shipping container.
“… a metaphor is a direct substitution of one concept or object for another, with the goal to draw a comparison between the two concepts or objects. The use of the metaphor forces a reader to actively engage with what is being said in order to understand in what ways the concepts are related so that he or she can see the subject in an entirely new light.”
I then go on to turn the metaphor on its head: what if the container/memory went on a journey from home port to a foreign destination far away? In other words, what happens to our containers/memories as we grow up and evolve into conscious human beings? What does the journey look like? How do the containers/memories change? I create shipping containers as if they were memories. Or journeys by ship on the sea as if they were life experiences. These questions can be examined more clearly and incisively when investigating the life journeys of refugees or slaves, as they have no physical baggage and their journeys are involuntary. In the art making process something happens which tells a new story and sheds light on hidden meanings. Like most life journeys, my art never knows where it is going or what the end destination will be.
South Africa has a complicated social history, which has mostly been written and determined by various separatist political ideologies. I am curious about South Africans’ common history through the epigenetic memories that we have at a subconscious molecular level. Using my own family history, with the help of genealogy searches and DNA testing, I have discovered a colorful and complicated story. It is multifaceted and full of contradictions and conflicts. And not at all easy to understand. My ancestors were both slave owners and slaves; colonists and French Hugenot refugees; the original inhabitants of the Cape Colony and the invaders; Boers and English on opposite sides of the Anglo Boer War. My family story is probably not unusual, but certainly not well examined. So what kind of South African am I? And how does that affect the way we regard ourselves as modern South Africans in the new democratic South Africa? And how does this perspective of our common histories impact on the way we have viewed South Africa’s social history in the past?