P153 – Changing the Script: Interventions in the Colonial Archive
9 July, 09:00-10:30

Godby Michael / University of Cape Town
Van Robbroeck Lize / Stellenbosch University


This panel brings together five papers that consider ways in which artists and curators have worked with historical collections of visual material – paintings, photographs, maps, installations, etc. – in ways that both situate such material within the historical conditions of its time and make it meaningful to contemporary – that is, unforeseen – viewers. At a time when the visual image – in the form of monuments, exhibitions and installations – contributes to the trend of history being displaced by memory, and in the urgent political conditions of post-Apartheid South Africa, the papers in this panel debate the intrinsic historical value of the visual archive and its usefulness in understanding the past as well as the present.

Changer le texte : Interventions dans l’archive coloniale
Le panel rassemble cinq articles traitant des façons dont les artistes et les conservateurs ont travaillé avec des collections historiques de supports visuels – peintures, photographies, cartes, installations etc. – afin de les situer dans les conditions historiques de l’époque et de les rendre significatifs aux spectateurs contemporains, c’est-à-dire, aux spectateurs imprévus. Dans une époque où l’image visuelle – sous forme de monuments, exhibitions et installations – contribue à la tendance de l’histoire à céder la place à la mémoire, et dans le climat politique critique d’une Afrique du Sud postapartheid, ces articles débattent de la valeur historique intrinsèque de l’archive visuelle et son utilité pour comprendre le passé ainsi que le présent.

Paper 1

Godby Michael / University of Cape Town

Battleground: An Account of an Exhibition of Charles Bell’s Drawings of the War of the Axe, the Seventh Frontier/War of Dispossession, 1846/7

This paper considers the challenge of exhibiting Charles Bell’s 60 drawings of a colonial war of dispossession in Grahamstown, the very territory that was fought over, in community that the drawings had constructed as ‘the enemy’.
The exhibition is arranged in three parts. While the drawings themselves constitute the first part, several installations are introduced in the second in order to demonstrate the constructed nature of Bell’s account of the war. Thus, reproductions in text panels of contemporary newspapers articulate the settler view of events that is reflected in Bell’s drawings. Similarly, historical surveying equipment and maps – by Bell and others – are intended to draw attention to the fact these wars were primarily about the colonial acquisition of land. 19th century illustrated books on racial theory that seem to underpin Bell’s representation of Xhosa people. And a display of historical muskets and swords both reminds viewers of the harsh reality of the war and suggest that Bell’s drawings were every bit as much a weapon in the colonial armoury as the firearms themselves.
The third part of the exhibition consists of recent representations of the frontier wars, particularly Xhosa views. These works range from reconstructions of actual events, to contemplations on the effects of this war, to deconstruction of the historical language of representation – chiefly perspective, to interrogations of the notion of masculinity in historical accounts of the war, etc.

Paper 2

Van der Watt Liese / Independent Scholar and Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg

(Re)presenting Zulu history in contemporary South Africa

This paper will focus on the difficult and often controversial attempts at re-assessing historical representations of Zulu culture in contemporary South Africa. Starting with the so-called Zulu room in South Africa House in London, I will look at how colonial representations of Zulu culture have been imaginatively addressed after 1994, to engage a democratic South Africa. Unable to change anything about South Africa House because it falls under the auspices of English Heritage, the curator of the decorative programme was faced with a particular challenge to re-address the one-sided colonial narratives that populate the Embassy. The result, specifically in the Zulu Room, is an inventive and open-ended intervention in the archive of history by layering meaning, quite literally, with text and image on perspex panels suspended over original murals.
By contrast, in a recent controversy about the representation of the historical figure Shaka Zulu, it would seem that colonial representations of Shaka proved more acceptable than contemporary re-assessments of the historical figure. A bronze sculpture of Shaka made by artist Andries Botha was removed after complaints from the Zulu King that Shaka didn’t look heroic enough and was an insult to the Zulu people. The resultant storm revealed not only the complex faultlines in contemporary understandings of Zulu masculinity, but also the urgent need to change the script of the colonial archive in South Africa.

Paper 3

Maedza Pedzisai / University of Cape Town

‘Exhibit B – a human zoo': contemporary (mis)readings of colonial archive performance

This paper uses Brett Bailey’s The Exhibit Series (2010-2014) to investigate the controversy that followed the performance of the treatment and extermination of African people in the colonial era and beyond. Exhibit B is a performance exhibition that animates memory and photographs from the colonial archive that capture the atrocities committed in Namibia; Belgian and French Congos; the plight of African immigrants living in – and during their deportation from – Europe; and Apartheid. Exhibit B drew praise and condemnation in equal measure wherever it has been shown. I will pay particular attention to the controversy stirred by the exhibition in cyberspace and on the ground; manifesting in several online petitions for audiences to boycott the show. On the ground protests and demonstrations ensued at the Barbican Theatre in London and in France where it was called ‘a racist human zoo’. Exhibit B is an example of the contemporary struggle over the appropriation of colonial ethnographic photographs and memory as well as the difficulty of generating consensus to reading art that appropriates and inverts the gaze on historical colonial imagery. In turning the photographs into performance Exhibit B constitutes an alternate episteme, whose systems of knowledge production and preservation are fundamentally distinct from the archive.

Paper 4

Mahashe Tebogo George / University of Cape Town

A Personal Take, or Stuck in the Middle/side and Going Nowhere: An attempt at imagining a methodology for engaging colonial photographic archives, histories and subjectivities

While locating myself, and my “culture” within the post-colonial impulse of self-representation, I have encountered the historic photograph in a variety of forms. While their uses are vast, I am particularly interested in their use by artists, whose approach maintains a productive, but seemingly unorthodox attitude, initiating a less nervous approach to the supposedly disavowed documents.
In this paper, I explore the challenges that I have faced in my dealings with the claims the wider humanities have laid on what a photograph’s work is. My research looks into the visualization of Balobedu, focusing on a missionary, and two anthropologists’ use of photography in the production of knowledge within the 19th and 20th century colonial project. This paper does not only question the nature of disavowal in historic photographs – mostly associated with colonialism and its gaze – but also the lenses we use to decide on this disavowal, which may persist merely because of an investment in a particular brand of reflexivity among humanities scholars.
In my work, I am interested in the physical document, not as a source of information or evidence, but as a disruption in time and personal proximity. In response, I engage the photographs through installation, playing with the boundary of observer (photographer and audience) and observed (subject and photographer), questioning the impulse to police how the photographic residue of a past moment is to be perceived today.

Paper 5

Van Robbroeck Lize / Stellenbosch University

Re-reading the Colonial Encounter: Keith Dietrich’s Series of Artist’s Books

In this paper, I will look at a series of four artist’s books and installations by South African artist, Keith Dietrich. Each of these projects deals with an aspect of the colonial archive and each attempts to re-read the colonial encounter as the crucible in which the fraught nation of South Africa, with all its tensions and conflicts, reconciliations and redemptions, was forged.
In the first project, Horizons of Babel, Dietrich charts the expanding horizons of knowledge as represented by successive cartographic conventions. The second book, Fourteen Stations of the Cross, investigates the colonial encounter via one its most historically charged and morally ambivalent manifestations: the missionary station. The third book, Many Rivers to Cross, again deals with geography and photography (particularly aerial photography) as site of knowledge-production. Here, Dietrich focuses on the great rivers of Southern Africa: their confluences, their tributaries, estuaries and the vital role these played in the history of colonial expansion and local resistance. Fragile Histories is Keith Dietrich’s latest in this series of photographic book projects and recounts the bio-political control of subjects in the Cape during the 1700s.
The paper will focus on the ways in which Dietrich utilizes postcolonial theory and various contemporary theories of the archive and knowledge production to re-read archival texts that recount the colonial encounter.

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