why did i die…?

In a world – and more specifically in a country – where binary opposites such as us and them, white and black, good and evil are linked to people, it might be helpful to draw on what Levinas (1984:161) referred to as facing the other ethically. To see the other in this way is not about changing the other into something the same, or even finding common ground, or even reciprocity of a relationship, but allow our own naked vulnerability of seeing the face of the other- to take “infinite responsibility” for the other.

In her recent work, Maria van Rooyen adheres to this challenge. However, as an artist trying to understand the fabric of society she lives in, she grapples with opposites: victim and the perpetrator; killer and the killed; murderer and mourner.

In the video work why did I die ….she refers to the written submission of Owen McGregor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the death of his brother Wallace. The submission was presented as if Wallace were still alive, confronting the former Apartheid Government for the deceit and lies. Why did I die? became for Gobodo-Madikizela (2003: 112-113) “a metaphor for the silence of many white South Africans”.

The video work explores this silence – an ominous silence as portrayed for example in a fleeting reference of domesticity with three flying geese on a wall.

In a society plagued by violent crime, Van Rooyen (2006) explores possible and plausible causes for the spate of violence and brutality in South Africa. Her search for answers led her to the work done by dr Vamik Volkan, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia in the USA. Volkan suggests that an oppressive political system leads to consequential psychological scars and to new social dilemmas and moral issues – little respect is shown for laws and authority, and crime and corruption proliferate.

Van Rooyen takes cognizance of these perceptions. But her role as an artist is to insert the problematic, to challenge the viewer and to establish a dialogue.

-Johan Myburg

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. 2003. A Human Being Died That Night. Cape Town: David Philip.
Levinas, E. 1984. Peace and Proximity. In Paperzak, AT, Critchley,
S and Bernasconi, R (eds) 1996.  Basic Philosophical Writings.
USA: Indiana Press
Van Rooyen, M. 2006. Catalogue for the exhibition why did I die …In Cape Town, November 2006,
Volkan, V. 2006. Trauma, Mourning, Memorials and Forgiveness.
Paper presented at the Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness Conference reflecting on ten years of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 23 -27 Nov, University of Cape Town.