Brothers in Arms
A solo exhibition by Silke Berens
National Gallery of Namibia, 1-25 August 2017
The exhibition ´Brothers in Arms´ examines the perpetuation of the heroic soldier narrative spanning more than three generations of the artist’s family. The artist is largely excluded from this narrative by nature of her gender and functions as observer and witness to the embodiment and enactment of the ‘noble warrior’ and ‘comrade’ archetype within the construct of warfare. She perceives both senselessness and absurdity in the much-extolled virtues supposedly achieved by participating in combat: Honour, glory, sacrifice to a greater cause and the compliance to time-honoured masculine norms such as manliness and patriotic duty.
The realities of the effects of war are without a doubt far less glorious than in romanticised mythologies, which were particularly upheld by the artist’s family members and ancestors. Those who returned from war whether having participated in active combat or not, were wounded in ways which left them struggling to adjust to, or function in, society. In the artists family, this manifested as dysfunctional behaviour and mental health conditions such as addiction, depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Yet, the battlefield occurrence of intense bonding with fellow comrades in arms, habitually under extreme conditions of imminent threat, fear and violence, is one that seemingly saves the experiences of these men from being rendered meaningless in the face of war’s horrific moral dissonances. Protecting the life of the soldier next to you while risking injury or death, creates a sense that war is worthwhile and restores agency to an otherwise extremely disempowered entity.
The existential question with which the artist approached the making of this body of work is: what value or meaning can possibly remain in all of this brotherhood and courage and honour when the outcome consists of hearts and minds irrevocably broken and damaged? The son who never knew his father, the war widow lost in her grief for the rest of her life, the wife suffering the violence of her husband´s untreated PTSD, the brother fighting ghosts until the end, the mother losing her son to a slow decay of hope. The daughter is rendered powerless to speak up, because the men go to war and the women wave them silently goodbye. This goodbye signifies more than the potential cost of never returning: No relationship will be as it was before, as these men are forever changed by their combat experiences.
However we perceive the machinery of war, the questions asked in this body of work offer no easy resolution or obvious solutions. Even though we may honour soldiers’ suffering and loss by gestures of commemoration and remembrance, how will we as humanity move towards less destructive and futile socio-cultural ‘customs’ when at this present moment the carnage of warfare unabatedly continues to ruin generations of young and old?
Exhibition Text: Poetry Projection
“Hunt (2010: 100-101) advocates that history destroys memory in that it reconstructs and recollects the past as static truth, whereas “sites of memory” “hold… the past close and repeat… it”. These “sites of memory” include “funeral eulogies […] battlefield monuments, memorials and museums”. These constitute a people’s or nations’ collective memory, and include myth and folklore. He goes on to assert that “we have lost our sense
of memory, replacing it with history and, because of our psychological need to remember, we create specific – perhaps artificial – memorials to use for commemoration”.
Poems written about the war remain dynamic “sites of memory”, as they, through their powerful emotive content, bring the historical event emotionally very close to the reader. War poetry is individual emotive discourse focused on non-individual and ‘objective’ historical events. Its subjectivity does not lessen its relevance as texts of history as the poet’s memory of experience is valid in that it truthfully reflects her/his unique experience of real historical events. In this sense, individual poems on a particular war do reconstruct the collective memory of the event. Their narrative transforms “traumatic memory” into therapeutic “narrative memory” as it integrates the story into the individual’s, as well as the nation’s,
story. However, how the individual copes with it is universal, i.e. through trauma narratives, of which poetry forms part. Poetry gives suffering meaning; it is part of the narrative approach of assigning value to war trauma, and this process is a prerequisite for
Genis, Gerhard. “South African Great War poetry 1914-1918: a literary-historiographical analysis.” PhD diss., 2014.