An Empathic Representation Of Traumatic Memory And Transgenerational Trauma Through Contemporary Jewellery

Article  /  CriticalThinking   Research   History
Published: 17.10.2023
Chandra Ngomane
Edited by:
Edited at:
Edited on:
Chandra Ngomane. Cuff: Suffocation Unseen, 2022. Polyester shirt, embroidery thread, sterling silver. Chandra Ngomane
Cuff: Suffocation Unseen, 2022
Polyester shirt, embroidery thread, sterling silver
© By the author. Read Copyright.

In this final research article, I investigate traumatic memory through transgenerational transmission and its visualisation through my own contemporary jewellery practice. I’m specifically interested in the ability of jewellery as an intimate art form that can act as a vehicle to highlight the trauma that was experienced and is still present in post-apartheid South Africa.

This text is included at the chapter 3 How can jewellery tell the story of their trauma and its transmission? at the full research by the author.
Chapter 3.3 "Narrative, the body and jewellery"

Trauma disrupts memory structures and creates a warped body image (Marven, 2005:398). Therefore, it can be theorised that the South Africans who experienced apartheid and the generations that came after exist as warped body images. Their traumatic memories are stored in a fragmentated part of their mind and needs to be integrated back into their narrative memory. According to Baum (2013:34), trauma is a shock to the body, the effects from the shock send the body into continual past present state. The traumatic manifestations in the present, pull the body back into the past (Baum, 2013:35-36). Thereafter, leaving the body continuously trapped in its own memory, rendering the body metaphorically ‘timeless’. This idea of the traumatised body being timeless seems fitting to presumably ‘timeless’ nature of jewellery, because it lasts over many generations.
According to Rob Baum, the traumatised remains guarded, ready to defend itself in everyday life from an attack that may never come (2013:39). Thus, the body keeps attacking itself, through internalising the attack, ready to protect itself at any moment (Baum, 2013:39). The body then becomes factor in the traumatic narrative of South Africans. Narrative can be told not just in words with actions. When the verbal and nonverbal are simultaneously expressed and attended to, a clearer narrative is presented to the witness (Federman et al, 2015:2). The body houses sensations, emotions and past events, allowing South Africans to be present in their story telling and the witness to experience the story beyond language. The body turns the narrative into a present moment experience (Federman et al, 2015:10-11). At the trauma centres, people just wanted to be heard and tell their stories in the way they are able to (Mengel et al, 2010:93). Presently people’s bodies are speaking after the trauma, whether its through heart attacks, anxiety or depression. These bodies are speaking although the language they speak is distorted and no longer pure (Mengel, 2010:118).
This alludes to a problem with discursive narrative; the body is lost. Whereas South Africans feel their pain and the violence in their bodies and not language (Mengel et al, 2010: 116). This raises the question: What do bodies know that words cannot? When words are lost or minimal, the body becomes the narrator, where the past becomes present (Federman et al, 2015:10). The body of the apartheid survivors and the generation that came after, speaks the language of oppression, thus it’s more than just the trauma symptomology, it’s a whole new skin WE wear (Mengel et al, 2010:123).
Narration can be limited by language and memory, thereafter the body becomes the place where these limitations are broadened (Bennet, 2001:6; Nuttall, 1998:86). Wearing jewellery as an act of witnessing will broaden the narrative, because there exists a close relationship between jewellery and the body (den Besten, 2001:126). Jewellery pieces can intimately become a symbiotic part of the body, where it forms an extra layer on the body (den Besten, 2001:125-128). The witness then puts on this layer, thereby putting on the new skin of trauma we wear as South Africans.
Memories can be projected on objects through the narrative lens derived from culture. According to den Besten, (2001:61), an effect of time, hold and place can be made by jewellery pieces. Thus, as an art object, jewellery, becomes a medium for story telling (den Besten, 2001:61;64). In my art practice, jewellery is the medium through which the stories about apartheid and its effects are told. Throughout history, jewellery has been read into, as artefacts are read as text. The wearer of the piece charges meaning into a piece, therefore by being a witness through with my jewellery pieces, the wearer will embody the affective narrative of South Africa’s past present trauma (den Besten, 2001:24). The embodiment of the narrative is achieved through the figurative elements used to construct my jewellery pieces, which I hope will evoke thoughts about the stories from apartheid and the way it affected South Africans in the mind of the wearer (den Besten, 2001:63). Affect is engaged through this medium that plays on bodily aesthetics and sensations (Bennet, 2001:123).

Jewellery has a confrontational nature, where a commitment is made by choosing to wear the piece (den Besten, 2001:61). Therefore, as the witness chooses to engage with my body of work, they are committing to hearing, seeing and feeling the trauma of affected South Africans and their affected lineage.
It is important to note that there exists a gap between the intended and attached meaning of jewellery pieces and what the viewer would perceive as its decorative function (den Besten, 2001:64). Although, the intention is for an affective encounter of witnessing to take place, it cannot be successfully achieved without the wearer agreeing to it. Liesbeth den Besten said that jewellery is not only charged by the intentions of the maker, but the narrative of the piece is completed by the wearer (2001:104). Therefore, my body of work only meets its function when the wearer puts it on and agrees to the performative act of witnessing. The act of wearing and the embedded knowledge of the piece, are central to my body of work.
Contemporary jewellery has a remarkable capacity to represent social and political relationships. For inspiration and as visual literature I look at artists that will inform the materialisation of how I approach my own of body work, when looking at telling the trauma of the post-apartheid South Africa.

- Baum, R. 2013. Transgenerational trauma and repetition in the body: The groove of the wound. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 8(1):34-42.
- den Besten, L., 2011. On Jewellery. Germnay: ARNOLDSCHE, Art Publishers.
- Bennett, J., 2001. Stigmata and Sense Memory: St Francis and the Affective Image. Art History, 24(1):1-16.
- Nuttall, S. 1998. Negotiating the past: the making of memory in South Africa. 1st ed. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
- Mengel, E., Borzaga, M. & Orantes, K., 2010. Trauma, memory, and narrative in South Africa. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

>> Download and read the full Article


About the author

Chandra Ngomane
is a contemporary jewelry artist located in Cape Town who is interested in both the theory and practice of jewelry. She wants to look at how we may utilize jewelry to tell stories that are stored in the body. She accomplishes this by researching trauma, how it affects the body and mind, and how it is transmitted to others. Her research is an extension of her artistic practice. Both serve as a catalyst for the performative act of bearing witness to people groups' untold traumatic memories. Post-apartheid South Africans, in her instance.

Instagram: chandradiaries