Seen on July 9, 2016 @ National Arts Festival, Grahamtown

“Was God in the rocks that build the house of God?” This question pervades Immortal. Jenna Dunster addresses us as Hazel Smith, she takes a few rocks and ponders their sheer power and contained energy, a force to reckon with. She tells us what happened on the 22nd of April 1911 when a train from Port Alfred was driving to Grahamstown with 50 passengers on board and stones that were meant for the building of the Cathedral of St. Michael’s and St. George.

Hazel recounts the beautiful family holiday at the beach. At the end of that lovely break the family would return back to Grahamtown. At the Blaauwkrantz Bridge the locomotive lost an overweight wagon which dragged others along into the depth. The bridge was a hallmark of colonial engineering that mastered the Eastern Cape. The builders of the bridge did not take into account the Blaauwkrantz river valley that was sacred ground for the residing amaXhosa living here. The narrative continues with the fatal disaster and the rescue operation that followed, ultimately leaving Hazel Smith as the sole survivor in her family. The hands that build and the hands that let go are clenched as a fist, but also asking to be hold.

Immortal is a lament questioning the presence of God on that fatal day, a microscopic lense into the larger tension of empire versus tribe, God vs ancestors, colony vs land, house of God vs sacred ground.

Jenna Dunster embodies the tension with cautious tenderness and hesitant anger dressed in a early twenty century travel coat and dito dress, a few stones at hand and a banner depicting the Blaauwkrantz Bridge, underscoring both the particular small and the universal large question hanging over the place of disaster.

With Hazel we return to Grahamstown where she contemplates the aftermath and takes us back to the opening scene pondering the condensed energy and power in the stones. Was God in the rocks that build the house of God?

Questions that linger with the hymn still song in that very Cathedral:

Immortal, Invisible

God be in my mind.

God be in my understanding.


Photography: CuePix/Madeleine Chaput – National Arts Festival 2016