Disorientation: Archival Encounters and Allegories of History in Penny Siopis’s video Obscure White Messenger (2010)

This text was presented at the conference Archives Matter: Queer, Feminist and Decolonial Encounters, 2nd and 3rd of June 2016 at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research. The paper was presented on the panel Trauma, Sound and Temporality.

Video: Penny Siopis, Obscure White Messenger, 2010, 8mm film transferred to DVD, sound, colour. Copy of the video and all images, reproduced here as stills, are courtesy the artist and the Stevenson Gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).

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A murky, watery world enters my field of vision and an octopus appears. I observe its pink whiteness as it moves upwards and downwards again. I hear music:  plaintive, as though a lament. The image of the octopus is obscured by sprocket marks, and the effects of light and time on obsolescent film. An act of violence is narrated: ‘but yes I did stab him right through’.

Penny Siopis’ video Obscure White Messenger is 15 minutes, 7 seconds in length. It is constructed entirely from found footage discovered, often serendipitously, in markets, and second hand shops, in Greece and South Africa. South African born, Siopis is of Greek heritage, an aspect of her personal history invoked obliquely in Obscure White Messenger. [ii] The found footage, which she refers to as ‘found domestic footage’, is composed of 8mm film used for home movies in the 1950s and 1960s.[iii]

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Anonymous people perform and speak to the cameras but they cannot be heard. The sounds of moving cars, of crowds at public events and ceremonies, of market places, streets and what appear to be heritage and tourist sites are inaudible. What is heard is the music soundtrack that Siopis constructed from a personal collection of Turkish folk music, a compilation from the 1998 series ‘Music around the World’. [iv] The pace of the soundtrack and film sequences oscillate, time speeds up and slows down, music is melancholic then jarring. A cable car makes its way down a mountain: ‘when I got here’, I read, unable to determine the location of the ‘here’, ‘I got an inferiority complex’. Now the landscape is recognisable: Signal Hill in Cape Town. A mountain is obscured by cloud (the mountain could be anywhere): ‘I wanted to be blonde with blue eyes’.

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Telling Tales

A historical event underpins Obscure White Messenger but it is only in closing that a postscript narrates:

In 1966 Demitrios Tsafendas stabbed Hendrik Verwoerd, the Prime Minister of South Africa, to death in parliament. This was considered an act of madness rather than a political assassination. He was imprisoned on death row at Pretoria Central prison for a quarter of a century before being moved to an insane asylum at Sterkfontein in 1994. He died there in 1999.

In the making of the video Siopis researched and collated material for her personal ‘artist’s archive’ consisting of the found footage and home movies transferred to digital formats; and also cultural texts, official documents and newspaper reports. The official documents in Siopis’ archive include the ‘Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the Circumstances of the Death of [Verwoerd]’. [v] Verwoerd remains an omnipresent figure in the history of apartheid and William Beinart argues that ‘in its broader conception [apartheid is increasingly] associated with [him]’. [vi] The figure of Verwoerd is also explored in two other videos by Siopis: Verwoerd Speaks 1966 (1998-1999) and The Master is Drowning (2011). The latter engages the figure of David Beresford Pratt who, on 9 April 1960, shot Verwoerd at the Rand Easter Show (a major annual consumer exhibition held in Johannesburg).

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The ‘Report’ attempts to determine ‘the facts’ of Tsafendas’ birth and biography. It records his date and place of birth (Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, 14 January 1918). It states that his mother was ‘Amelia William, alias Amelia Williams’, ‘a Portuguese subject of the Portuguese East African Territory of Mozambique’. [vii] And then, it draws attention to her race: ‘She was a non-White. Presumably one of her parents was a White and the other a Swazi. In Tsafendas’ birth certificate she is shown as Amelia Williams, a domestic servant’. [viii] ‘It is probable’, the Report continues, ‘that Tsafendas was illegitimate’. [ix] His father ‘was originally a Greek subject from Candia, Crete, born in 1885. In 1947 his father became a South African citizen’. [x] I imagine the figure of Tsafendas’ mother, her biography and her history, through the disappearances produced by historical power relations of race and gender. Siopis invokes the absent-presence of Tsafendas’ mother in the video itself. I read: ‘My mother was a mixed woman’ and I see a blurry image of an illegible figure in an obscure landscape.  The ‘Report’ draws attention to the inconsistencies, myths and projections that dominate the tales told about Tsafendas and is an important source for Siopis’s subtitles. The textual authority suggested by a film subtitle is destabilised by Siopis’s re-casting. We are uncertain whose voice it is we are reading, it may even be our own.


Zuleiga Adams’ PhD dissertation Demitrios Tsafendas: Race, Madness and the Archive (2011) represents the first sustained scholarly investigation of the figure of Tsafendas to date. [xi] Her work constitutes an apartheid and post-apartheid archive of Tsafendas encompassing documents held in official archives and cultural texts. She frames the cultural texts as psychic archives, which overlay autobiography and biography, factual account, and fiction, and are scripted by ‘individuals profoundly affected by the event’ and who themselves have formed subjective, ‘troubled identifications’ with it. [xii] As Adams’ research tells us many narratives are woven into the stories that are told about Tsafendas: ‘Was he a madman, a drifter, a schizophrenic, a communist, a psychopath, or as the Judge would have it, in Afrikaans, ‘’n niksbeduidende skepsel wat ’n nuttelose lewe gelei het” [a meaningless creature leading a useless life]?’ [xiii] Adams drew attention to the fact that Tsafendas, whose life prior to the assassination, was peripatetic, had lived in Colonial Mozambique, Portugal and South Africa, all of which were repressive regimes: ‘Tsafendas’ delusions or semi-delusions were certainly intelligible when read in their historical contexts’.[xiv] The question of Tsafendas’s race, nationality and citizenship presented a conundrum for the apartheid state, and archival material demonstrates the minutiae of its obsessive preoccupation with racial types and categories: ‘A man who could be Greek, Portuguese, Mozambican or Arabic, was difficult to pin down in the Verwoerdian racial lexicon’. [xv]

The title of Siopis’ video – Obscure White Messenger is derived from Nelson Mandela’s 1995 biography A Long Walk to Freedom: ‘Later we heard about the obscure white parliamentary messenger who stabbed Verwoerd to death, and we wondered at his motives.’[xvi] Siopis recalls that due to the uncertainties that plagued Tsafendas’ (with regards to citizenship and racial category) ‘it was a mistake’ that he was both able to enter South Africa, prior to the killing of Verwoerd, and find employment as a parliamentary messenger. [xvii] The authorities assumed he was white.

One of the most ubiquitous and sensationalised aspects of the Tsafendas case is the story of the tapeworm: Tsafendas believed himself to be inhabited by a tapeworm, which led him to stab Verwoerd. In interviews, Siopis draws connections between the sequences of the octopus swimming in its tank and the tapeworm: ‘It’s not a worm but we read it as the worm – the tapeworm or the monster (the monster of apartheid) or the vulnerable creature in a tank.’ [xviii]

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Sequences of the octopus appear a number of times: at the start and close of the film, and towards its ending. Potentially labyrinthine systems of signification are deployed in Obscure White Messenger, which function within the territories of affect and poetic modes of association and meaning.


I experience Siopis’ video as murky, disorientating and opaque. It is characterised by a certain impenetrability, a refusal to tell me what it is about in any didactic and definitive sense. It draws me into an awareness of my own subjectivity, of my own psychic projections, and of what it is I subjectively “feel” as I encounter the visual, sonic, and textual registers of an artwork that moves. I encounter histories of apartheid as a subject classified white. The film appears to embody ‘something’, to invoke Griselda Pollock, of the affective-temporal sense of the encounter with trauma. Pollock writes of art that has this capacity to ‘aesthetically affect’; to ‘perform more than representation’. [xix]

I mobilise Catherine Russell’s (1999) concept of ‘experimental ethnography’, her analysis of ‘found footage as ethnography’, and her conception of found-footage filmmaking as ‘allegories of history’ to argue for the work’s resistance to the spectacle of apartheid and the further violation and objectification of a marginalised subject. [xx] Russell’s concept of ‘experimental ethnography’ proposes ‘a way of referring to discourse that circumvents the empiricism and objectivity conventionally linked to ethnography’. [xxi]She conceives of found-footage filmmaking as ‘allegories of history’ which disrupt ‘narrativity as a symbolic system’.[xxii] She continues: ‘In the process of being appropriated, the original image gives over its meaning to the new text and is manipulated by the new filmmaker on the level of the signifier’. [xxiii] The idea of allegory, which Russell brings to history and the mechanisms of found-footage filmmaking, is a significant aspect of Obscure White Messenger: ‘Allegory implies a certain randomness, a seriality without necessity, rendering the logic of narrative necessity null and void’. [xxiv]

In her discussion of surrealist film, Russell examines sound both in silent cinema, and later as an integral aspect of film as text. She deploys the term ‘Surrealist Ethnography’, focusing on Luis Buñuel’s 1932 work titled Land without Bread, Unpromised Land or Las Hurdes. [xxv]She draws attention to the incongruity between music and image in Buñuel’s film. [xxvi]She discusses his use of the soundtrack as a ‘montage element’ that builds ‘the film on three separate discursive levels – music, image, and narration – realising that film is an audiovisual medium’. [xxvii] Russell writes: ‘The power of the soundtrack, the impact of narration on the way images are read, and the effect of music on how they are “felt” are laid bare in Las Hurdes’. [xxviii]In Obscure White Messenger, the music draws us into a space of disorientating sensations and feelings that are not readily described or placed.

Obscure White Messenger ‘disrupts’, what Pollock conceives of in her work on art and trauma, as ‘the hunger for mastery (epistemophilia) and sadism or voyeurism (scopophilia)’. [xxix]Tsafendas, whom I cannot claim to represent, is a figure imagined through the projections, ideologies and epistemologies produced by the narratives which stake a claim to his image and fashion him as a historical subject. Siopis mobilises visual-sonic-textual languages which bring opacity and affective-poetic proximity to the Tsafendas archives thwarting a transparent and legible narrative. The artist’s remaking of her sources invites us to reflect on the epistemologies of marginal subjects and historical processes of reconstruction.



[i] Interviews (Penny Siopis and Yvette Greslé), Cape Town, 1 and 3 November 2011.

[ii] Siopis’s personal history is a significant aspect of an earlier video, My Lovely Day (1997). See: Annie Coombes, Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, 2004, pp.274-278.

[iii] Interviews (Penny Siopis and Yvette Greslé) conducted 1 and 3 November 2011, Cape Town.

[iv] In an email conversation (16 November 2012) Siopis wrote: ‘Tracks taken from CD is “Music Around The World” series: Turkey. Performed by Whirling Dervishes. Compilation: 1998, galaxy music.

[v] My copy of this ‘Report’ is from Siopis’s personal archive.

[vi] William Beinart, Twentieth Century South Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 (Second Edition), p.146.

[vii] The ‘Report …’, p.1.

[viii] Ibid., p.1.

[ix] Ibid., p.1.

[x] Ibid., p.1.

[xi] See: Zuleiga Adams, Demitrios Tsafendas : Race, Madness and the Archive, a dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History, University of the Western Cape, December 2011;

See also, two recent publications: Zuleiga Adams, ‘Demetrios Tsafendas and the Subversion of Apartheid’s Paper Regime’, Kronos (40), Special Issue on Paper Regimes, November 2014, 198-224; Hedley Twidle, Unusable Pasts: Life-Writing, Literary Nonfiction, and the Case of Demetrios Tsafendas, Research in African Literatures, Volume 46, Number 3, Fall, 2015, 1-23.

[xii] Ibid., p.212.

[xiii] Ibid.,p.34-35.

[xiv] Ibid., p.23.

[xv] Ibid., p.34.

[xvi] Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom (Boston: Little Brown, 1996), p.512.

[xvii] Adams, 2011, contextualises this. See, p.89.

[xviii] Interview (Penny Siopis and Yvette Greslé), Cape Town, 1 November 2011.

[xix] Griselda Pollock, After-Affects/After-Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum, 2013, p.7.

[xx] Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), opening of the preface. Chapter 9, ‘Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography’, pp.238-272.

[xxi] Ibid. pp.238-272.

[xxii] Ibid. p.240.

[xxiii] Ibid. p.240.

[xxiv] Ibid.p.240.

[xxv] Catherine Russell, ‘Surrealist Ethnography’ (Chapter 2, pp.26-47), in Experimental Ethnography, 1999. For her discussion of Las Hurdes and sound see pp.30-31.

[xxvi] Ibid., p.30.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.31

[xxviii] Ibid., p.31.

[xxix] Griselda Pollock, 2013, p.8.


Adams, Z. 2011. Demitrios Tsafendas : Race, Madness and the Archive, a dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History, University of the Western Cape.

Adams, Z. 2014. ‘Demetrios Tsafendas and the Subversion of Apartheid’s Paper Regime’, Kronos (40), Special Issue on Paper Regimes.

Beinart, W. 2001 (Second Edition). Twentieth Century South Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coombes, A. 2004. Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, pp.274-278.

Greslé, Y., 2015. Precarious video: historical events, trauma and memory in South African video art (Jo Ractliffe, Penny Siopis, Berni Searle and Minnette Vári). PhD diss., University College London.

Mandela, N. 1996. A Long Walk to Freedom (Boston: Little Brown.

Pollock, G. 2013. After-affects/After-Images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Russell, C. 1999. Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Twidle, H. 2015. Unusable Pasts: Life-Writing, Literary Nonfiction, and the Case of Demetrios Tsafendas. Research in African Literatures. Volume 46, Number 3, 1-23.










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