My mother, born Elizabeth Van Heerden, is an Afrikaner that grew up on Witfontein, a vast farmland just outside Pretoria. In 1964 at the age of 21 she emigrated to the US and secretly married my father, Leo Robinson, a Black American artist from DC. She has never returned to South Africa.
My broad understanding of my relatives that remained on Witfontein was that they were right wing, religious fundamentalists. I have never spoken to them. This half of my heritage has always been minimized, ignored, and hidden. What I know of the farm, I know through my Mother’s stories and very few photos. The only visceral connections have come through the sturdy furniture that she inherited upon my Grandmother’s death. I would sit in my Grandfather’s chair and try to feel and imagine who he was.
In 2005 I asked her to guide me to Witfontein via satellite map on Google Earth. She was skeptical and hesitant as we hovered across virtual expanses of the area. In a highly emotionally charged moment, she exclaimed, “Stop!.....That’s it! That’s the farm!” and her memories came flooding out.
The aerial view of her original home gave real images and spatial relationships to my life-long imaginings. The farmhouse, the chicken coop, the reservoir that my grandfather built with the help of a diviner, the poplar forest that terrified her as a child, the family plot where my grandparents and great grandparents are buried, even their graves were stunningly visible. I archived and labeled most everything on the map and transcribed many of the stories. Now only the labels remain as the original places have disappeared.
in 2005 the farm was sold to real estate developers. I monitored via Google Earth, the demolition of Witfontein and the construction of the Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estates. The golf course was designed by Jack Nicklaus with clusters of residential areas that span across 800 hectares surrounded by high voltage walls.
Because Google Earth was so integral to my experience of the farm, I wanted to create an intervention that could be seen by satellite and integrated into the Google Earth photographic timeline. In 2010, I received a grant from Art matters to travel to South Africa for the first time and create an intervention on the estates.
In South Africa, I made a pest of myself until the administration of the estates finally agreed to hear my presentation and to my absolute surprise, they accepted. The proposal I presented to them was to allow me access to an area, situated near the family graveyard and what was the old poplar forest. I constructed the image out of 10 metric tons of sandbags arranged into a message approximately the same size as a property line in Brooklyn.
Some years later the images did appear on the Google Earth historical timeline as well as the map. As you scroll through the years one can see “Hi MOM” appear vividly at first, then gradually fade away over the course of about 4 years.