The Futility of Writing 24-page Letters

Installation comprising 3 components.

Exhibited on Transgressions and Boundaries of the Page, Africana room, JS Gericke Library, Stellenbosch University; Gallery of the North-West University, Potchefstroom and the FADA Staff Exhibition (2009), FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg (catalogue).

The 1st component of the installation comprises 13 prints that resemble pages of a Victorian woman’s diary, mounted on linen and contained in a single frame. Each pagecontains narrativised extracts and direct quotes from Bertha Marks’s original letters to her husband, sourced from the Samuel Marks Papers Archive, Kaplan Centre for Jewish Research, University of Cape Town. The texts provide insight into her homesickness for England and her sense of alienation and loneliness in southern Africa, both of which she attempts to overcome byrecreating an English botanical and architectural environment on the Highveld. Like most British immigrant or settler women, Bertha Marks was reluctant to adapt her new surroundings. Rather, her identity was constructed around a constant striving to maintain Victorian attitudes, behaviours and values through assertion of Victorian codes of respectability, with their inherent assumption of white supremacy.

The 2ndcomponent features a particularly poignant quote, printed in vinyl lettering mounted onto the wall.  In it, she expresses her feelings of hurt and frustration at her husband’s typically Victorian, paternalistic and chauvinistic response to the long letters she sends him. Her words convey a sense of pathos as she wonders if she should ‘only’ write ‘short’ letters to him in future.

The futility of her investment of time and effort is shown in the 3rd component – a pile of crumpled, torn and discarded pages, upon each of which the same extracts and quotes are printed. The texts impart a gendered reading of the patriarchal ideologies underpinning Victorian gender relations and convey Bertha Marks’s sense of entrapment within the social constructs that dictated her day-to-day life as a wife and mother. However, while indicating her constrained position within a patriarchal social system, they also reveal how Bertha Marks, as an example of a colonial English woman, operated from within, and was complicit in maintaining, the exclusionary racial, social and cultural divides, prejudices and forms of subjugation that form the bedrock of colonial discourse.