Within the walls of the idyllic NWU Botanical Gardens Gallery at the North-West University’s Potchefstroom Campus rests an exhibition of works by Joe Turpin titled When the Dust Settles, an exploration of memories, loss and mourning.
When the Dust Settles opens the door to, not only the artist’s North-West heritage, but the ancestry of the Jewish community as a whole, of his own identity and that of his family history. Turpin brings to the fore an eye-opening account of the dangers of anti-Semitism and the scarcity of Jewish communities in South Africa.
“Theoretically, in addition to being concerned with Jewish history myself, I feel that showing a significant body of artworks pertaining to Jewish identity and history – some site specific in a locations like Potchefstroom – during a climate of growing global anti-Semitism, has the potential to make people aware of anti-Semitism’s danger. This is critical in a diasporic Jewish community who exist in small and dwindling numbers, such as the current reality in South Africa.”Joe Turpin
In February 2022, the foundation stone of the Rustenburg Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in South Africa’s North West province was removed. There has not been an active worshipping congregation or Jewish community in over twenty years and the building was finally being sold. After removing the stone, a time capsule was found. Dated 1924, the bottle contained documents serving to preserve the history of the community, and the opening of the Synagogue. The Synagogue and congregation were founded and built by Turpin’s great-grandfather, Philip Wulfsohn, and his brothers, who were originally from Zhager, in what is today Lithuania. They arrived in South Africa as refugees fleeing the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century.
During this time, their community was precarious. They did not know what would happen to them or their temple in the future and it was not uncommon for Yiddish speaking Lithuanian Jews to leave time capsules back then. As fate would have it, the discovery of the bottle is the point of departure of Turpin’s work, in which their history will be further preserved.
When the Dust Settles addresses the history of the bottle, the places it’s been and the memory it holds as well as the memories it brings to the surface of Turpin’s mind. “My memories of visiting Rustenburg as a child were not to anybody’s home, or even the temple, but to the Jewish cemetery. One of two that exist. My grandfather who is buried there, passed on before I was born. After losing my own mother as a teenager, I have a desire to connect with and explore her side of my family and its history. Even the sense of community abandonment, white flight, urban migration and now finally the sale of the temple’s building, add to the sense of loss.”
“These themes and works are contextualised in relation to whiteness, colonialism, post- colonialism, anti-Semitism, and a contemporary African position. I am interested in the narratives of all these ‘isms’ throughout the past one hundred years. They include stories of murder, gangs, and politics but also of memory and culture.”Joe Turpin
In preparation for this exhibition at the NWU Botanical Gardens Gallery, Turpin has wholesomely utilised spaces like the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios (Johannesburg), Pratt Institute MFA Studios (New York) and The South African Jewish Board of Deputies Archive at Beyachad (Johannesburg), as well as YiVO and the Centre for Jewish History (New York) for research and artwork production. “I am grateful also to the work of Rabbi Moshe SIlberhaft, who accompanied me to Rustenburg in June 2022, who is keeping the bottle and its content until they can be archived, and whose work and research, especially with site visits, is invaluable.”
“The title When the Dust Settles is all encompassing for me when I think about this history – a population that is no more, but with the relics left behind.”Joe Turpin
When the Dust Settles is currently on at the NWU Botanical Gardens Gallery at the North-West University’s Potchefstroom Campus until 31 August 2023.