Deep Time in the Karoo explored through “Letters from the Landscape”


By Hashim Tarmahomed

Curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, educator, and writer Lesley Lokko, the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale (La Biennale Architettura) is the first of its kind, recentring Africa as the Laboratory of the Future and broadly considering decolonisation and decarbonisation as creative points of departure and themes of discussion throughout the exhibition.

Alongside eight other South African teams (in addition to the curators of the South African Pavilion), Johannesburg-based practice Craig McClenaghan Architecture (CMA) was invited to participate in the Curator’s Special Projects. CMA is an interdisciplinary practice led by Craig McClenaghan. It is interested in collective memory, cultural heritage, and spatial narrative, and often participates in projects that overlap with the fields of art, archaeology, museology, landscape, culture, and other broader research practices.

Responding to the theme Mnemonic, CMA’s installation is titled Letters from the Landscape. McClenaghan describes it as an “experimental mapping project [that] explores paper as a material of memory, in which landscape and artefact are interchangeable and recorded as fragments, imprints, and residues across multiple scales of place and time.”

The project both relies on and expresses tensions between place, time, climate, and narrative. Having personally assisted with the project, this creative essay reflects on the processes of conceptualising, making and recording Letters from the Landscape, within its rich geographical and historical context.

Place: Gondwana
(Co-ordinates shifting)
Time: About 2.7 billion years ago
Climate: Lava hot

Deep subterranean pressures beneath the supercontinent cause volcanic activity across the landscape. An extrusive igneous rock is formed from the lava, and spreads along areas of the terrain. Named Andesite by modern geologists for the Andes in South America where it is found in abundance, the rock can be found in various other parts of the world today, including the Karoo.

Place: Cargonian Highlands, Gondwana
(Co-ordinates shifting)
Time: Karoo Ice Age, about 300 million years ago
Climate: Icy cold 

High-lying parts of the Karoo landscape are blanketed under layers of glacial ice on the supercontinent of Gondwana. Deep tectonic movements cause tensions between the glacial and geological terrains, forcing them to ultimately move in opposite directions. In the process, the surface of the underlying Andesite is smoothed, with creviced striations scoured into it. As the ground moves towards warmer latitudes, its icy cover melts, leaving remnant drop stones in the landscape, today referred to as glacial pavements.

Place: Karoo, near the banks of the Vaal River
(-28.5994493, 24.6123643)
Time: Later Stone Age, some 1500 years ago
Climate: Warm, dry 

Indigenous communities use chunks of pointed stone to engrave into the surface of the glacial pavements around the banks of the Vaal (Gauteng). Their skilful drawings depict animals such as eland, rhinoceros, and giraffe, and other more abstract circular geometries. Quietly resting on the smooth rock face and intertwined within the lattice of glacial striations, the age-old engravings are time-sensitive, theatrically performing with light and shadow. By day, they are brought to life, animated along the sun’s shifting arc, and by night, they are put to rest. The artwork remains mysterious to the modern eye, but the ecologies and cosmologies at play are intriguing. Under what circumstances were the engravings made? What sequence were they produced in, and by whom?

Photo: Craig McClenaghan

Place: Nooitgedacht, between Kimberley and Barkly West
(-28.5994493, 24.6123643)
Time: 16 and 17 February 2023
Climate: Warm, partly cloudy with afternoon showers

As 40 litres of water are hauled up in buckets from the Vaal River, water slowly trickles up, invading the dry floodplain. Pre-processed pulp made from cooked and beaten indigenous reed is rehydrated, forming an agitated solution, the ratio of which remains variable and elusive. Sheets of fibre are extracted from the solution using a paper mould and deckle. They are laid gently on the pavement, with hand pressure applied to drape them over the topography, around its engravings, and into its fissures. While the sun dries the sheets, butterflies flutter around, remembering flowery material in the paper. Water evaporates from the sheets, leaving behind new fibrous topographies to be epidermally released. Traces of old and new geologies, hydrologies, and anthropologies are held in the paper. At the end of the day, excess water washes fibrous residue off the pavement, leaving the landscape without a trace.

Photo: Hashim Tarmahomed

Place: Arsenale, Castello, Venice
(45.4338355, 12.3556092)
Time: 20 May 2023
Climate: Warm, humid 

Seven pairs of fibre sheets are suspended from the ceiling, touching the ground of Venice only in shadow. As light hits the surface of them, layers of markings are revealed. One sheet per pair is inconspicuously impressed with infographics, critically highlighting the magnitude of resources demanded by the global paper industry from natural landscapes more broadly. The sheets hang in equilibrium. The carefully handcrafted organic material is weighed down on either side by industry-produced brass weights which glimmer curiously in the light. A panoramic three-part screen tells the story of Letters from the Landscape, while the clicks of a Khwedam story occupy the soundscape. The sheets hang for six months, their topography slowly distorted by the humidity of Venice. In McClenaghan’s words: “Suggestive of pages of a book, stratigraphic sections through a landscape, or even the skeleton of a body, this installation, an atlas, is suspended in time and space, in which paper is the landscape, the artefact, and the laboratory.”

Photo: Craig McClenaghan

Shortly after producing the paper in Nooitgedacht, the site experienced unprecedented levels of rainfall, unrecognisably flooding the glacial pavements. Around the same time, the canals of Venice began drying up, in many areas to bed level. The sudden climatic distortion in two seemingly unrelated locations is curious. Though coincidental with the project, it demands, like Letters from the Landscape, that we deeply think about the tensions between our contemporary needs and their corresponding costs to natural environments. We might then reimagine the meaning of climate change and reconsider our collective relationship with our landscapes.

Letters from the Landscape is on show at the Arsenale di Venezia until 26 November 2023 

Project Team:

Craig McClenaghan, Hashim Tarmahomed, Wihan Hendrikz, Hugh Fraser


Dr David Morris, Rena Maghundu, Phumani Paper, eiletz ortigas | architects, Naadira Patel, Zen Marie

With additional support:

Graduate School of Architecture, African Futures Institute, William Kentridge, Michael Hall, SAHRA

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