“Tumbleweed originates from Russia”
Down dusty roads in the small town of Malmesbury, South Africa, we looked for signs for the Jewish cemetery, driving in
circles until eventually we found the plot up another dusty red road, a white wall enclosing a plot of reddish earth shaded by tall blue gums and cypresses. The view of the hills and valleys beyond, so unfamiliar to me, was distorted by the shimmering heat. I walked through the half-empty cemetery towards a cluster of black marble gravestones and was suddenly surrounded by my own name...
My (mainly Jewish) great-grandparents lived in Russia, Belorussia, Lithuania, Palestine, South Africa, Australia and England; they were almost all migratory, moving their home, sense of place and identity, wayfarers on a continual journey. In thinking about mapping genealogies and the link with Linnaeus's plant classifications, I became interested in exploring the way plants are transferred by the movement of peoples around the world and how our migrations change, shape and create our environments.
The works shown here investigate these connections and ideas in a number of ways. The map of migrations uses the idea of lace-making to show the inter-connected and overlapping lines and threads of migrations made by family members. The act of creating the lace drew on anthropological readings of different traditional methods of remembering ancestors and lineages, from the celebrated Inka khipu, a series of knotted cords, to the Kandingei of Papua New Guinea:
“Among the people of Kandingei, on the Middle Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, the most important man in every group keeps a knotted cord – some six to eight metres long and three centimetres thick – which is said to represent the primal migration in which the founder of the clan, following in the path of a crocodile, journeyed from place to place” (Lines, Tim Ingold)
The process of lace-making also involves the transferral of traces into threads, so that surfaces are brought into being, and the pattern is eventually discarded leaving only the threads. In this interpretation the lines on a map become free flowing threads, interlinking and independent of boundaries or invented divisions between state, region, religion or nationality. This reflects the act of migration, of travelling, not as a transitional activity but as a way of being, and of place not as a full stop but rather as a knot of entangled lifelines. The act of migration being a liminal state, the migrant is a “passenger”...“betwixt and between the positions assigned and arranged by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.” (The Ritual Process, Victor Turner) Therefore, “the life of a person is the sum of his tracks, the total inscription of his movements, something that can be traced out along the ground”(Wagner, In Ingold) - the travelling defines the traveller, and the act of way-faring becomes an act of place-making.
In the Pitt Rivers museum, Oxford, lacemaking equipment can be seen, as can different types of Khipu and other non-textual ways of recording ancestry. The bobbins used to create the lace were often given as gifts on occasions of births, marriages and deaths, and would be engraved with the names and dates of the person concerned. In the creation of the lace, memories would be constantly referred to. In the migration map here, the bobbins refer to each persons name, and year of birth and death, so also act as a form of memorialisation.
The etchings of plants refer to person, journey and plant, making metaphorical connections between the intentional migrations and accidental transferral of plants by humans in their journeys. The etchings are laid out in the pattern of a family tree, over three generations, and imagine a plant which each person might have, intentionally or otherwise, taken with them on their journeys.
Plants have many environmental and cultural associations; for example the Bergenia crassifolia (Nicholaus Filaratoff) was also known as Siberian tea when it was first imported to England in the 1600s by botanists in contact with Russian plant enthusiasts. Rye (Secale cereale- see Wolf Beinart) flour was used in Black Bread, a staple of the Eastern European Jewish diet, as were Beetroot (Morris Schreibman), Dill (Zlata Gitovitch) and Caraway (Gitel Apter). Other plants represent new environments which family members encountered; Edith Pearlman travelled between England and South Africa many times, as the Pelargonium (a now familiar garden flower) made a similar journey from South Africa to England brought back by the first colonists. Monte Levy, who travelled from (the then) Palestine to Australia, and on to South Africa, would have seen different species of Acacia in each place, including the native South African Acacia karroo.
Each etching also refers to a plant in the Oxford Botanic Gardens, where an installation work which accompanies these pieces can be found. This work is also a form of memorialisation, as Oxford's Botanic Garden was created on land which was formerly the Jewish burial ground in Oxford, before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.
Katy Beinart 2008
Thanks to the European Association for Jewish Culture for their support.