(Re)membering, (Dis)membering, Re(imaging and imagining):
In response to Freedom or Death
My memories of the 1980s are vague. My interpretation back then, as a sheltered child in a homogeneous coloured township, feels entirely misconstrued, even ignorant. I remember being both fearful and excited by the sight of Caspers in the streets, and even the bomb scares at our school. I was too young to understand the political incentives that fueled these actions but old enough to sense the volatility and precariousness of the situation. We were desensitised by the regular disruptions in our schooling; the sight of military coloured vacuum-formed bomb samples hung amongst the alphabet and times tables in our classroom. There were whispers amongst some adults of how the ‘darkies’ were taking over, and of genocide. On the other end of the spectrum, my music teacher began each of his lessons by teaching us various African National Congress resistance anthems.
Sifting through my scattered memories, I remember feeling shunted and bullied by neighbours and peers for being dark-skinned in a coloured neighbourhood. My retaliation was to be as different as possible within the confines of being part of a conservative Muslim family. I recall the excitement of going to the Golden Acre mall (one of my very few reasons to leave the township) and the ‘Krismas liggies’ (Christmas lights) on Adderley Street, both in the centre of the City of Cape Town and how it felt like an annual pilgrimage to a far-off place. These feelings and experiences now mean something very different. They are not so personalised—more shared and mostly political. I have come to know that my experience has deep resonances with many others, and that the political is embedded in everyday life. Being trapped in an apartheid township meant that I had little exposure to ‘others’ and, therefore, few overt encounters with racial oppression. Yet, everything felt intensely wrong.
Seemingly clearcut black and white political affairs filtered down into the quotidian as grey and fuzzy matters of survival. As much as my parents tried to protect us from the racial oppression, our occasional journeys outside of the township—where we had encounters with whiteness—were always spoiled by racist glares of disapproval, snide commentary and unwanted sexual advances. The everyday experience of violence of my grandmother and parents who worked outside of my township always returned home to haunt us. In 1998, I entered higher education as the only coloured design student to attend in thirty-five years. My experience was fraught with difficult encounters—so much so that I’d prefer to forget it. At that point in time, the grand apartheid regime may have been eradicated, but true transformation and participation was stunted by institutional and systemic racism and neo-colonial ideologies.
Subsequently, I have had many direct encounters with racial oppression. My views of my South African reality have radically transformed and continue to shift on a daily basis. My positionality is that of an activist art practitioner. Many years of experiences in this place have hardened me, and I am still affronted by the effects of neo-colonial apartheid—systemised, privatised and securitised, omnipresent yet invisible. I seek to recognize, make sense of and intervene in that which has become normative now; by interrupting and/or disrupting in sustainable and impactful ways. I employ the universality of images to afford me with language and scope to express my experiences and contentions.
As an artist, I have been granted certain unspoken privileges—agency, artistic license as well as certain levels of class mobility. In other areas I ‘fall short’—being black, female and of disadvantaged background. The intersectionality of the variables I face is as complex as they come. However, privilege is complex, layered and requires ongoing complicating. Unquestioned, it continues to reap damage through complicity. Continuously calling-it-out and disrupting it is of paramount importance in the work of dismantling it. I wonder then, how does one work through white privilege, superiority, and saviourism in the troubled times of apartheid? Is recognition enough? And does the transformative power of the work itself—the care that comes from recognizing one’s position, energy/time/effort/danger and such—balance out these privileges? Is white male privilege pure and uncomplicated, or are there considerations that allow the holder of this type of privilege to disrupt and dismantle it? Is it possible to use and subvert these privilege(s) towards a social justice end?
In the 1980s and 90s, life for residents in black townships was perilous. Over and above this, ‘white bodies behind the camera’ were positioned very differently. The privilege of acces to black communities was complicated by the danger of being caught in the crossfire or being beaten and arrested by police. More than anything, it puts a ‘spanner in the works’ in terms of the ways in which we think about privilege as racialised and simplistic. Privilege plays out in Mendel’s work in how he used his privilege to access, image and juxtapose ‘forbidden’ spaces and violent acts, which otherwise would have remained hidden, undocumented and invisible to broader society.
Mendel’s original photographs hold authentic and representational depictions of the past. These archival materials seem to hold a greater air of ‘truthfulness’ than our mutable and fragmented memories. Without images of the past, we are left with the embodiment of trauma, festered wounds and mere traces of a phenomenon faded by time. Even though it is not always overt, violence features quite explicitly throughout. Within the images, black bodies and white bodies are positioned in particular proximity to violence. The relationality of bodies to each other and this violence speaks of comraderie, antagonism and apathy. In the book Blacks and whites dance together (p. 137) with and within an extreme reign of violence.
Through his treatment of the archival photographs in the present, Mendel recognizes their contemporaneous relevance. My title for this essay, (Re)membering, (Dis)membering, Re(imaging and imagining), speaks to how the three collections in this book reawaken and render the past relevant once again. Within a milieu where the preference is to forget, Mendel’s work with the archive renders it alive again. The images revisit the archive in order to acknowledge the past presences and absences in the present, by recognizing organic and natural transformation, highlighting and foregrounding through inviting Brodsky’s gaze and providing insights into his state of mind at the time.
Grappling with and reworking images from the past renders them relevant and meaningful in the ‘now’ and allows them to re-enter the present discourse through new positionings and framings. Mendel’s work in this book poignantly ‘harps’ on the past by acknowledging continuities of the apartheid phenomenon in the present. His sensistive work into the archival material brings about possibilities of new perspectives and interpretations. My question is: how can Mendel’s work of dislodging undead zombies, trouble the deeply rooted and unquestioned privilege maintained by neo-colonial violence?
In relation to my personal experiences during the time of apartheid, Mendel’s reworked photographs conjure up familiar scenes. Specifically his images of action filled sjambok-yielding policemen (pp. 54 and 55), resonate deeply with my fascination for and aversion to this object. The sjambok has become a significant element in my own artistic practice, due to it’s normalisation and ongoing use within households during and post- apartheid. This links directly to the legacy of violence still lingering in the lives of South Africans today. Mendel’s curation of the photographic collections create a journey filled with ebbs and flows of tension, and allow for permeations between the whole and individually highlighted elements. In this way, he plays with the vastness and layeredness of memory itself. A delicate and tentative balancing act unfolds as I look and relook at each page. I interpret Mendel’s work as his own intense relationship between the political and the personal, which reminds me of my own journey from the self into the socio-political domain.
1. The word Coloured refers to people of mixed geneology. Although offensive in many contexts, the ‘coloured’ apartheid racial category is still in current usage today, from both a state and societal perspective.
2. Casper – Military vehicle / truck designed to intimidate rioters.
3. These Bomb sample Charts were used to educate young children to identify the different types of explosive warfare used by resistance ‘terrorist’.
4. A derogatory term for peoples classified as black African in Apartheid.
Changes of state
With restless intensity Gideon Mendel has travelled across the globe, using his lens to home in on zones of physical, political and environmental trauma. Periodically, he has returned to South Africa, the country where he was born, where he began his career as a photojournalist and became one of several “struggle photographers” who covered events during the mounting, widespread confrontations of the 1980s.
The violence of those times was most prevalent in the outlying townships and squatter camps where those people who had no vote and no officially recognized voice were now seeking to take possession of the streets; sometimes it spread to the centre of the predominantly white cities. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs of those same cities (where almost all the white “struggle photographers” were based), life continued inside a seemingly shatterproof glass bubble of comfort and political indifference.
The photographers would drive out to work day after day; later, the chambers of their cameras filled with images involving unspeakable violence and intense surges of adrenaline, they would drive back home to the suburbs of amnesia. Over a period that continued well into the 1990s they bore witness to a complex series of intermittent wars for the future shape of the country; by publishing their work in newspapers with a readership often unaffected in any direct way by the unrest, they became go-betweens in a struggle of memory against forgetting.
In 1990 Gideon Mendel left South Africa to live in London, storing a cardboard box of negatives in a friend’s garage in Johannesburg. Only decades later did he discover that some had been rained on, the water percolating against the negatives and permanently transforming them.
Those photographs had originally been intended as an alert at a time of political emergency. But look what has become of them: the protesters with their raised fists and flags, the coffin bearers, police and soldiers are no longer only fighting against each other; in these images they must also contend for their visual existence with the blistered, blotched damage to the film itself.
The three-year old child in a candle-lighted coffin risks a second death under a pitted, blurred celluloid surface, his or her name already half-gone. People possibly out on a protest march have had the top halves of their bodies taken over by an anonymous acid-yellow, orange and maroon cloud that walks down the street on many pairs of feet.
If these images were initially meant to bolster memory, they now speak of the fragility and malleability of memory itself, reminders that a material trace of the past can be altered or even obliterated, just as the images of memory in the human mind can be entirely changed, whether purposefully or not, when subjected to the currents of time.
Sometimes, the altered image here appears to be an even more vivid record of past events than the originals might have been. The blurred rectangle showing what seem to be women with their mouths open, perhaps wearing the ANC uniform of khaki blouses and green berets, could so easily be an afterimage of a scene glimpsed from a passing train in a memorable blur. The chance blotch weighted against the throat of a child being carried along, wounded or dead, in adult arms, only underlines his or her mortal condition. Elsewhere, a face emerges from an obscured background, now wearing the singular mantle of the survivor since it has escaped obliteration.
The changes to these images work arbitrarily in several directions, adding to and subtracting from the originals. Whatever the case, it is the process of change itself that one sees, both in the way the image has been altered and in its primary subject matter: people urgently needing to transform the basic condition of their lives.
Gideon Mendel might also have chosen to retrieve and show such images for a reason quite different from the ones mentioned so far. Which artist does not await the moment when he or she no longer controls the act of making, but is rather carried onwards by a wave of energy swifter, wiser and more surprising than the wilful self? Uncalled for, unwanted, water has nonetheless served this purpose here, bloating, pitting and obliterating but also at times adding a vital and even surreal touch to photographs that might otherwise never have been thought fit for publication.
Apart from the chance creativity of rain, there are also two other ways in which Gideon Mendel’s work from the same period has been modified here.
Added to some prints there are captions and credit stamps as well as layout markings meant for the press, indicating how they needed to be positioned, sized and cropped at the time of publication. Together, these signs show the photograph in transition between the photographer and the press, more particularly the left-wing South African Weekly Mail. They add an extra dimension of process and craft to the image, as well as a sense of urgency: it must get out into the world in the most effective way possible. It must also bear Gideon Mendel’s name. This is his work, his way of earning his daily bread as he presses the alarm button of his camera.
The colour added to his photographs by artist and human-rights activist Marcelo Brodsky has a childlike quality to it, considerably removed from the original sensation they produced when first printed in black and white in the 1980s: it was as if they had been heat-guided, headed with great velocity towards a target in an ongoing war zone.
What now emerges, with the combined distance of time and Brodsky’s artistic alteration, is an almost comic-strip narrative. The characters, instead of being engaged in an urgent struggle, now appear to play a stylized and in some cases iconic role in the historical narrative of the time.
The words Brodsky has added to the pictures are reminders of the stakes both for those in revolt and for South African society at large during the 1980s and 90s, lest they be forgotten, not least of all during the current period of political confusion in South Africa. The lines of Benjamin Moloise’s final unfinished poem, written shortly before his death by hanging, pierce through an image of protest in his name:
I am proud to be what I am.
The storm of oppression will be followed
by the rain of my blood.
I am proud to give my life,
my own solitary life.
One pair of photographs, each altered differently, could speak for the theme of transformation which is the central axis of this book. They show flames blazing through a building, the skeletal structure collapsing twice over in the molten heat. The seemingly untouched patch of greenery to the right of each image only accentuates, by its promise of flourishing growth, the inaudible moment of annihilation.
These images of destruction have themselves been smudged, almost burnt, framed by a narrow yet bulging procession of mould: images of loss by fire, doubled by loss due to water, together yielding an irrepressible, raging beauty.
Not that this diminishes in any way the importance of the photographer’s original work of witnessing. It does however bring to mind an aphorism by Marcus Aurelius: ‘Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight.’