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Set in Stone | joe turpin

Exhibition Statement by Joe Turpin

Identity, history, and mourning. The sense of community abandonment, white flight, urban migration, memories and loss. In one way or another, I make my work to process these themes individually and together, looking at them in relation to whiteness, colonialism, antisemitism, and a contemporary African position.


In February 2022, the foundation stone of the Rustenburg Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in the North West Province was removed, as the building was finally being sold. There has not been an active worshipping congregation or Jewish Community in over twenty years. After removing the stone, a time capsule was found. Dated 1924, the Bottle contained documents serving to preserve the history of the community, and the opening of the Synagogue. This Synagogue was founded and built by my Great Grandfather, Philip Wulfsohn, and his brothers, after they arrived in South Africa as refugees fleeing the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe in the late Twentieth Century. They were originally from Zhager, in what is today Lithuania. It was not uncommon for Yiddish speaking Lithuanian Jews to then leave time capsules. At that time, their community was precarious, and they did not know what would happen to them or their temple in the future. The capsule was evidence of existence.


Inside the bottle, which was carefully opened, was a list of the executive committee of the temple at the time of the opening, and the original order of service at the laying of the foundation stone, and the temple’s first ever worshipping event. I found many names, with the surname Wulfsohn. This was the Synagogue that my grandparents and then my own mother attended growing up. I visited it in October 2018 with my aunt, before it was sold, where all the prayer books were still intact. We of course had no idea about the hidden bottle. In June 2022 I visited the archives at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg, where the Bottle and its documents are being kept, as well as other relics of the temple. This exhibition started at the North West University Gallery, curated by Amohelang Mohajane (July – August 2023) in Potchefstroom, with Rustenburg being too in the North West Province, so that works took on a site specific approach and theme to the province as a whole, its Jewish history, and that of my own family, as a South African Jewish artist whose concerns related a history of Judaism into that space. I have expanded this body of work for this iteration in Cape Town, where my mothers forefathers would have first arrived in South Africa as refugees.


Theoretically, in addition to being concerned with Jewish history myself, I feel that showing a significant body of artworks pertaining to Jewish identity and history, some of site specific, in South Africa, during a climate of growing global antisemitism, has the potential to make people aware of antisemitism’s danger. This is critical in a diasporic Jewish community who exist in small and dwindling numbers, such as the current reality in South Africa. The use of artworks as an educational and conceptual tool holds the potential to promote greater tolerance, understanding, and respect.


Joe Turpin. Image_edited.jpg

Joe Turpin (b.1995 in Johannesburg) is a South African visual artist whose research practice focuses on historically charged narratives and semiotics as expansions of painting. Joe makes mixed-media installations grounded in painting that create temporal conversations about identity, memory, and history. His Jewish heritage becomes principal and consequential in exploring stories of migration and persecution.  These cultural paradigms inform his archival research and artistic production.

Turpin graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2023 with an MFA in Painting & Drawing, and from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2018 with a BA in Fine Art. Joe Turpin was a Top 3 finalist in the 2019 Cassirer Welz Award and a 2022 recipient of the Stutzman Foundation First Year MFA Fine Arts Awards for Three-Dimensional Art.

A Stone Unsettled A reflection on Joe Turpin’s exhibition by Andrew Lamprecht

One thinks of something that has been set in stone as something that has finality and permanence. It is the way that great acts are commemorated; statements about ownership are made and boundaries demarcated; how laws are given and how memory is entrusted to time for future generations to read and remember.


Yet we know that no act of inscribing can ever guarantee permanence. I am drawn to the fragility of the works on this exhibition and the way in which they occupy liminal spaces between the past, present and future. Life comes and life goes. How then do we measure time? How then do we ensure memories for the future? Perhaps Turpin is encouraging us to look at the present and focus on that which surrounds us – now. We live in a time of great upheaval and pain and Turpin’s work which deals with personal loss, communal disruption and the ephemerality of historical memory reminds us that what we experience now is deeply rooted in the past and will, in turn, influence what is to come.


Spectres of body parts, bottles and a musical instrument haunt his landscapes and still lives. His self-image, too haunts the surfaces of several of his canvases. He is here and not here. Everything is potentially going to be erased at any moment.


Turpin draws himself connected with great Jewish artists of the past, their tragic history intertwined with another history: that  of Jewish history in South Africa. Together the body of work on display is painful in its fragility. It is as if the surfaces of his work are at dire risk of being brushed off at any moment. This is the paradox of “Set in Stone”.


We think of history as something permanent and unchanging. Joe Turpin knows better: history is about us remembering now and doing what we can in the present. The future, like the past, will sort itself out and we shall be mere witnesses, we cannot change.

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