October 4th, 2012

"And Our Fathers that Begat Us", 2000

Color photographs on resin-coated paper, silver-gelatin prints on fibre-based paper, modified battery-powered torches.
Installation dimensions variable.

2000: FNB Vita Art Prize Exhibition, Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg.
2001: Dis/location – images and identity South Africa, curated by Daniela Tilkin for Fotoespaña 2001, International Photography Festival, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid & Sala Rekalde, Bilbao.

The installation was commissioned and produced for the 2000 FNB Vita Art Award.

I have always had a fascination for archives. This started during my childhood while spending hours looking through boxes containing small black-and-white photographs which I discovered in our family home (often by means of a torchlight in dark storing spaces). I guess it was the air of nostalgia, innocence and sentimentality they exude that initially drew me to these tactile images, often crumpled and stained due to numerous handling and the photographic fixer turning yellow. Furthermore, the shorthand notes scribbled on the back of each, such as ‘Drakensberg 1951’ or ‘Limpopo River Dec 1969’. I would often wonder who was the person taking the picture and for what purpose? What is the ‘meaning’ or narrative about the past that these object seem to contain? Or, alternatively, was it up to me to detect the clues, ‘join the dots’ (so to speak) and construct such meanings about the past for myself?
Coming from a land-owning farming family, the symbol of the landscape played an important role in the way I came to understand the world around me. It was a symbolic space signifying security and entitlement for white middle-class families (like my own) during Apartheid South Africa, since black people didn’t own any land then. On the other hand, being a boy-child, I was to identify with the landscape as a symbol of patriarchal heritage – only male children inherit family land in my (white Afrikaner) culture. In this way the landscape came to signify a particular type of masculinity and a sense of lineage with which I was expected to identify. The landscape became something synonymous with the word ‘father’.
Archives are like father figures in the way that they assume a certain kind of authority and create expectations regarding racial, sexual and political identities.
This installation consists of photographs from a number of different archives, starting with that of my father, particularly the landscapes he photographed (in colour) during his travels around South Africa as a young man in the 1960’s. Combined with these are black-and-white photographs from various sources: my dad’s photo albums, my own archive of photographs I took over the years, as well as those from public archives such as the Namibia National Photo Archives, and the Hugh McFarlane archive housed at the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Through the juxtaposition of different archival photographs with that of my own I aim to open up the possibility of alternative readings of narratives supposedly contained within each of these archives. As Rory Bester writes: “As much as archives are about remembering, they are also about forgetting. The material manifestation of one kind of memory is often collected, ordered and preserved at the expense of another kind of memory.” Therefore, to explore the absences and silences that exist in spite of archival memory, and in so doing, to question and neutralize the authority of the archive.
Exploring archives is uncomfortable, but at the same time liberating. Re-organizing the archive is a kind of therapy for me.