Cedric Nunn’s “Blood Relatives”

I’ve recently had occasion to revisit my project “Blood Relatives”, especially the exhibition, which was shown at Constitution Hill Gallery in Johannesburg in 2005, McGregor Museum, Kimberly and MAP, Graskop in 2006.

Below is the catalogue produced by MAP at the time, with an excellent essay by the famed South African expert on photography, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, who went on to establish her own publishing house, Fourthwall Books, with whom I was fortunate to publish my retrospective catalogue “Call and Response” with a few years later;


Image: Detail of Amy Madhlawu Louw’s kitchen. After her second husband died, she was moved from the land which she had occupied and lived on for over thirty years into this modest house, which was filled with character. iVuna 1995


To be true to Cedric Nunn’s artistic vision, one must begin with the story that he wishes to tell. This approach upsets, a little, my usual approach to photography, which is to begin with the images and find out what it is they are trying to say before asking the photographer what he meant by them. But since Nunn suggests that he found himself asking certain questions of himself, his family, and his community before he moved to photographic images , we should, more or less, follow this trajectory.

Or not. The American photographer Duane Michals once remarked that “Photography deals exquisitely with appearance, but nothing is what it appears to be.” The issues that Nunn explores are large and important: blood relationships, skin colour, racism, self-hatred, and political cynicism. The photographs themselves are intimate, domestic, and familial. So the question is how to reconcile this insider’s view of a family and community with the large themes that Nunn is determined to address. The subtle play of light and shadow, the close portraiture, and the quiet affection of Nunn’s images are, it would seem, at odds with this overarching raison d’être.


Image: Green girls. On the back stoep of the guesthouse built by John Dunn. Mangete 1982


This, I suppose, is precisely the point, and why Michals’ remark is particularly apt. The photographs begin with our most natural first point of reference; the people within our immediate circle of acquaintanceship and those places and objects that make up the domestic clutter of our lives. These are stored up in the deepest recesses of our minds and yet spring to consciousness at the slightest stimulus; a smell, the sound of a spoon against a cooking pot, a glimpse of a familiar pattern on a curtain or teacup.



Image: Myra Dunn. Inhlwati 1993


So while the thematic thrust of this project is from the outside in – from the political and social fabric of South Africa to the front yard, the hearth, the bedroom – the photographs take as their point of departure relationships of blood, the most fundamental ties of human community that began with mother and father and extended outwards to siblings and cousins, half – siblings and second cousins, step siblings and in – laws. Nunn begins in the heart of his own family, circles its daily habits and patterns of life, and observes the turn of heads, the unguarded expressions, the stances and gaits, and the gestures that must be utterly familiar to him.

Nunn inhabits, therefore, the privileged position of the inside observer. It is clear from the points of view presented in many of the photographs in this series, that the photographer is very close, emotionally and literally, to his subjects. He stations himself in a kitchen corner from where he can observe the daily comings and goings of people. He follows his grandmother to the front door, out to the yard to feed the chickens, to the field where she works a hoe in the soil, to her mat in a shaded corner where she rests, to her bed where she crumples in exhaustion. He is deeply mindful of the combination of strength and frailty that her body and face expresses and he waits to find moments in which to capture this quality.

Amy 'Madhlawu' Louw, bedridden at her home in iVuna. 1996

Image: A bedridden Amy Madhlawu Louw. iVuna 1996


The image of an ageing matriarch lying with her feet drawn up next to her chest in a half – foetal position is full of exquisite ironies and poignancy, and it is precisely through such images that Nunn exposes the enormity of the task that he has set himself. How can one hope to understand, confronted with the flesh and blood of this aging woman, with the round of work, rest, childbearing and rearing, cooking and hoeing, bathing and eating that has made up the very fabric of her life, the racial and political anxieties of an entire community of people?

The problem, then, at the heart of Nunn’s project, a problem of which he is acutely aware, is how to find one’s way from a set of values and beliefs – about identity, about the nature of society and the individual’s place in it – deeply embedded in a whole community of people, through all the social and political ramifications of those values, to the individual habits, values, emotions, and daily patterns of living of particular individuals. Or the other way round. How, in other words, do you understand one in terms of the other: the social and public in light of the individual and private?

Nunn partly answers this question by alternating scenes in private homes with photographs of public ceremonies in which an element of performance, of a sense of the public persona interacting with an audience, is at play. In both of these kinds of images, Nunn draws attention to small details and unguarded gestures. There is something moving, for example, in the picture of Ernest Dunn, MP, seated in his office, the old South African flag planted firmly in the middle of the desk, a pen in the right hand, and in the corner a brown paper lunch bag. But contemplate for a moment the possible complications between this man and his now disowned son, shown leaning forward in his leather chair, his old t – shirt bagging at the neck, and our focus on the small, private details gives way to our consideration of the larger issues at hand.


Image: Ernest Dunn, then House of Representatives MP for Northern Natal, Tri – cameral government. Mangete 1986


Nunn leads us through a series of moments, private and public, forcing us to stop at each one in order to contemplate both its singular impact and its relation to the moments just before and just after it: the young man lounging against a wall is linked, Nunn reminds us, to the speechmakers and celebrators of genealogy and racial purity. The child with the shock of blonde hair is connected, through a complex series of blood and community relationships, to the man in a labourer’s cap or the boys on their way to school, and all are caught inside the chalk circle of the final image in this series, and stand in some relation to the graffitied words in the same shot, “National Youth Day June 16.”


Image: Detail of Ronny Louw’s room. iVuna 2001

The documenting instinct aside, Nunn’s most powerful images are interior, domestic scenes. In these we see the photographer contemplating the ways in which light, shadow, and movement convey not just the mood of a photographic moment, but of a photographic enquiry. These images are full of the questions that Nunn is asking himself at every turn. They convey his powerful ties to a community of people, his deep affection for his subjects, and his sense that the faces and gestures will reveal some truth about the world. At the same time, his framing of certain shots suggests Nunn’s awareness that far more eloquent even than the faces of his subjects, are the shadows between them, and the things half – glimpsed through a glass door, and the silences around a kitchen table. These intangibles are what “Blood Relatives” begins and ends with.



Image: Amy Madhlawu Louw and neighbour MaQwabe Khumalo. As her once servant, MaQwabe would only ever stand or sit on the floor when in the house. iVuna 1999

Map – South Africa

Artist: Cedric Nunn
Concept: Harrie Siertsema
Text: Bronwyn Law-Viljoen
Co-ordinator: Abrie Abrie Fourie
Design: Flat International


Acquisitions and Collections

At a recent Art Gallery acquisitions committee meeting, in which the rare occasion of my work being considered for acquisition was underway, the inevitable question of “But, is it art?” was raised. The committee decided to go ahead with the acquisition so it seems the answer was in the affirmative.

Like David Goldblatt, one of the many influencers in my life, I’ve paid little attention to the perennial question of whether the images I produce are art or not. I didn’t set out to produce the images as art work, and haven’t come to the decision to do so yet.
That said, occasionally, some of the images I produce are exhibited in galleries and museums, and have even managed to garner coveted art awards, and as such some of that work is acquired, in the form of gallery and museum standard prints, by collectors of all stripes.

An early collection by a Durban local history museum, of the entire exhibition I had produced, for the price of printing the work at that point, which was in the mid-nineties, gave me much cause to consider the merits of having ones work in such collections.
What I found is that, the low price paid for the work aside, which I came to understand as a donation to the museum, was in fact an advantageous way of archiving work in ways that would allow for the work to be seen by many people from all walks of life, for an infinite duration, which is its primary purpose.

There are many ways in which photographic images can be viewed, and all have their merits and de-merits. For instance, there is the family photo album, seemingly on its way to extinction unfortunately, which has served families well since the outset of photography. These allow for families to easily review important occasions, living and deceased members of the family, and to show these to new friends and family alike.

Then there is publication in pamphlets, brochures, posters, newspapers and books. This is a great way to extend the reach of consumption, with its only demerit being the size of the image, and possible image quality reduction because of the nature of the paper used in books etc. There is of course also the commercial use of photography to sell product, probably the most used form of photography because of its efficiency in doing so.

The gallery is of course also a way in which photographers can show their work, and remains in my opinion by far the most advantageous way to present images, because of course this is the sole purpose of galleries, including of course three dimensional works of art as well as painting, etchings and the like.

While many more images can be, and usually are shown in book form, the quality of the image on paper in a gallery is almost always far superior, and this is what makes the photographic print a desired artefact. A truly finely produced image is a sight to behold, entirely captivating. A photographic exhibition is by its very nature the distillation of usually a great number of images into the select few which are then produced to their ultimate advantage in the printing process, with superior photographic paper, and or inks.

Added to the above is the fact that the instance of an exhibition allows the photographer to present the collection of images in a series of combinations which allows for the narrative or effect of the images to be controlled to maximum effect. This fact alone makes compelling reason to exhibit images which have usually been produced through a trying process of image making.

The time and costs associated with the task of generating images are manifold and exacting, and worth contributing to the equally exacting task of exhibition formation, the selection is itself often a gruelling task, and the printing, which is equally onerous and costly. Then the by far most costly of all is the framing of the images, and finally the selection of a gallery, and possible associated costs, and the actually installation of the images in ways that enhance them to maximum effect.
Of course it doesn’t end there, because once exhibited, there is a need to generate public awareness of the work via media broadcast through press releases, interview and critical reviews.

So its natural that after all the energy and costs involved, photographers and the many collaborators on such projects, such as curators and galleries should expect some financial compensation to make it possible, and indeed future such work possible. This is where the acquisition of such works into collections, both public and private, become necessary and advantageous.

A gateway into being collectable is the exclusivity of an edition. So an image will be produced in a set number, called an edition, which guarantees the collector that the print they have paid a substantial amount for will not simply be mass produced ad infinitum. It goes without saying that to violate this code will be to fall from grace within the system, ensuring no further sales into collections.

There are some photographers who choose not to participate in such an exclusive system, and a hand-few who are able to still make images available for collectors and collections without the caveat of a limited edition. I myself am not necessarily in favour of exclusivity, of whatever persuasion, however have not had the will to challenge a longstanding practise, and abide by its principle.

Unfortunately, but for the fortunate few, not many photographers works find their way into collections, public or private. The system seems to self-regulate itself this way, with the help of an army of curators who manage the various public and private collections, and is exclusionary by nature, with a handful of photographers selling for exorbitant amounts. I don’t claim to understand the logic of the art world ecosystem, and haven’t much desire in pursuing this understanding. But having said that it makes for great difficulties in justifying the costs associated with the exhibition process.

Of course there are both public collections and private. Some private collections are those of usually large corporations such as Banks, Insurance Companies and large corporations in sectors such as energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, financial houses and mining companies, as well as Foundations. There are also many private individuals who maintain collections. Public collections include museums and galleries owned either by universities or municipalities as well as the public broadcaster amongst others.
If one multiplies the number of such organisations, corporations and private collectors globally, you are looking at a substantial number of potential collectors, and the economically successful artists who are able to attract a large number of these collectors, are able to find their way into a large number of collections globally. Every artists dream!

The art sector is now recognised as an economic wealth generator, despite the fact that a disproportionate number of artists still live as paupers, precisely because of the elite few who are able to sell work for exorbitant amounts, and this of course includes the investor collectors who resell work through art auction houses. This is a multi Billion Dollar industry world-wide. Few industries perform as successfully as art does as a wealth generator. Wealthy, and some would say, wise, countries find ways to support artists in their act of production, and to find the ways and means to produce work for these growing collections.

Our country is yet to get there, for multiple reasons, some of which are that our corporations and businesses are relatively new to investing in the arts, having had a history of supporting sports and the like exclusively previously and have come late to the art party. Then the still evolving business and entrepreneurial sector Black businesses are yet to gain traction in the sphere of collecting and collections, and this includes private collectors, although there are many who do recognise this potential and possibility and are active, but these numbers could and should undoubtedly grow.

There are multiple reasons to support visual and plastic artists (I speak of these because I fall into that category, willingly or not, and also because artists such as musicians, dancers and the like do receive a great deal of State help, although they might argue they could receive more). Artists are a necessary sector in any healthy society, as are the arts generally, in the educational curriculum, in community and on a national level as recognised icons who are able to function globally. If there are a surfeit of struggling artists, surely this reflects poorly on the young creatives who aspire to achieve in this sector. An equally important aspect is that artists are an important component of articulating the zeitgeist of the times, artists by their very nature are able to be at the vanguard of the issues of the age, and this includes their country of residence as well as global issues. Artists are also contributors to heritage, history and culture in general.

The important function of supporting artists cannot be left to the State alone, and the Market is also an inefficient generator of the conditions needed to sustain and grow the arts. One needs only to look at the growth of the arts in various continents and countries to see the factors that contributed to their growth there. In Europe, Monarchs and the Church contributed generously to the arts through the ages, and capitalism has been able to lavishly nourish the contemporary art sector. The U.S.A. also employed State aid to elevate the arts as a necessary projection of super-power status, in the process promoting an exponential growth of the arts throughout various sectors such as corporate, as was done for most other sectors. Asia, especially China, is investing in the arts as befits a rising super-power. Scandinavian countries have also performed exceptionally well, recognising in the arts a potent way of projecting their culture into the rest of the world, and that being the particular flavour of expression which defines being Nordic and Scandinavian. And to this end the State and the private sector have worked exceedingly well in achieving success in this regard with artistic structures and bodies organised throughout the region.

We are yet to be convinced that the continent of Africa recognises this necessity in general, and South Africa in particular. In the case of South Africa, many fine words are spoken of the need to do precisely this, but have yet to translate into tangible action.
Time is passing, and a generation of artists have largely been failed, except for the exclusive few, usually nurtured by the private sector. Government over a decade ago launched its much vaunted ‘Mzansi Golden Economy’ as a main driver to grow the arts sector, but few artists are aware of it, or how it functions to their advantage in ways that visibly enhance their chances of growth and success. Its really time for the proverbial tyre to hit the tar to ensure artists a life of dignity, production and perhaps even prosperity.

I hope an article like this can generate some insights, and inspire ways of involvement, both by photographers as well as those who care about culture enough to read this essay, and maybe find ways to encourage the growth of the arts sector in the various ways that they are economically and culturally active in society. To not do so is to fail our cultural and economic growth as a nation.

2 February 2019
Cedric Nunn
+27 (0)82 601 9449

Archival Interview

The digital age allows for new surprises, such as the one I received late last year, which came in the form of a long forgotten interview. This interview, done by Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor, in around 1986, and in the home of David Goldblatt, was done in conjunction with the production of the exhibition and book ‘Beyond the Barricades’.

The interview was brought to my attention by Phd candidate Candice Jansen who is engaged in research towards her doctoral thesis, and is archived at Duke University, North Carolina, USA.

Its always a bit weird hearing oneself many years after the fact, and now, more than 30 years later, I am amazed at the staccato nature of my delivery, but I do take ownership of all I had to say. A warning is that the recording is of poor quality, but is still of use for scholars who are researching into photography and media in that period, and Afrapix in particular. No doubt the interviews of the many other photographers active at the time are also to be found in this archive.




Continue reading

Call and Response Book Launch

I have just recently come across this transcription from the launch of Call and Response at the Book Lounge in Cape Town in 2012, so some time ago, but a detailed and important conversation between my interlocutor UWC Historian Patricia Hayes and myself.

Again, I post this for the sake of documentation, and to make such conversations readily available to researchers and the like. Enjoy!

Book launch of Cedric Nunn, Call and Response

Conversation between Cedric Nunn and Patricia Hayes, introduced by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen.

The Book Lounge, Cape Town

12 June 2012

Transcribed by Bianca van Laun

Bronwyn: Thank you everybody for coming out on this blustery Cape Town evening. I’m Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, I’m the editor of Fourthwall Books which is the South African publisher of Cedric Nunn: Call and Response. I’m not going to say anything at the end so I’ll just say thank you now to Mervin and everyone else at Love Books for once again being so hospitable and hosting the book launch

Mervin: You mean the Book Lounge

Bronwyn: Oh sorry. (Laughs) I’m so sorry. The last one was at Love Books in Joburg. Book Lounge, sorry Mervin my apologies. The Book Lounge. Thank you. About two years ago I was approached by, I had known Cedric’s work obviously for a long time and so I was absolutely delighted when Ralph Seippel who is Cedric’s gallerist in Johannesburg approached Fourthwall Books with the idea of doing this publication and the German publishers. I think Cedric, he looks so young, I always think Cedric looks so young but he’s been around for ages. (Laughter). Young and sexy says George Hallett.   But Cedric has been at the cold face of South African photography since the 80s, since the 1980s.  He entered the fray at a critical juncture not only in the history of South Africa but in the history of photography, South African photography and I think very quickly established himself as a photographer with a deep sense of justice and at the same time a deep compassion and humanity for his subjects and for the environments in which they found themselves.  And that has always been the thing that has stood out for me and I think probably for many of you who know Cedric ‘s work is his desire to get off the beaten track and although he has been at some of the momentous events and has photographed some of the critical moments in South Africa history, he’s also been to the quiet places, to the places where most of us don’t go, to find the people that he’s really interested in and to whom he feels, with whom he feels a deep affinity. So his photography evinces an enormous generosity and compassion. Patricia is going to be Cedric’s interlocutor tonight. I met Patricia a couple of years ago on the occasion of your publication of John Liebenberg’s book. Patricia is a historian by training and her research and her work is in history but she has obviously developed a very keen sense of the relationship of the visual to history, and of history to the visual in South Africa. She teaches history at UWC and has been involved in very interesting projects about South African photography, to do with South African photography, so I think she’s a very worthy conversationalist and questioner tonight. So thank you very much Patricia for agreeing to talk to Cedric, and over to both of you. Continue reading

Feeling unsettled yet?

Here follows the opening remarks of long-time colleague, friend and fellow photographer, Peter McKenzie at the occasion of the opening of my exhibition ‘Unsettled: 100 Years War of Resistance by Xhosa Against Boer and British’ at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal on the 13th of May, 2015.

Cedric’s work is for me a form of re-appropriation of the contentious issue land. The creative act of engaging with a skewed notion of land ownership which makes it vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by power is reigned in and harnessed to serve the real needs transformation and racial equality. It renders land with its due, considerable heft. Continue reading

Grahamstown in focus: Cedric Nunn

Grahamstown in focus: Cedric Nunn

Grocott’s Mail

Photographer Cedric Nunn sees things differently. What’s the well-known lensman’s take on Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape, Sue Maclennan asks.

There’s one regret Cedric Nunn carries with him as he leaves Grahamstown this week: it’s that during his long and successful photographic career, this is the first time he’s managed to work extensively in the Eastern Cape. Continue reading

Opening Address Unsettled: 100 Years of War by Cedric Nunn

Opening Address

Unsettled: 100 Years of War by Cedric Nunn

Wits Art Museum

10 March 2015


Rory Bester

Head: History of Art and Heritage Studies

Wits School of Arts


Good evening ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues. Welcome

to the opening of Unsettled: 100 Years of War by Cedric Nunn. Continue reading


Back to the archives! I’ve just come across this tract I wrote back in 2012 on the occasion of the reunion of the Dunn family in that year. My grandmother Elizabeth Nunn, was a daughter of this illustrious and controversial ancestor. John Dunn, secretary and diplomatic adviser to Cetshwayo, King of Zululand (1873-1879); labour recruiter and Protector of Immigrants in Zululand for the Natal colonial government; political and military intelligence officer under Lord Chelmsford in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879; principle political adviser to Sir Garnet Wolseley on the post-war settlement, and chief of the largest and wealthiest of the thirteen districts carved of the subjugated Zulu kingdom. Having married 49 wives and sired 120 children, the gathering was large indeed!

Dunns Unite 2012 – John Dunn’s Descendants Reunion

On 2 December 1856 on the north bank of the Lower Tugela river, one of the largest military battles ever to take place on South African soil happened. This battle, the ‘Second Battle of Ndondakusuka’, between two of King Mpande’s sons, Prince Mbuyazi, the favoured heir to the throne and his adherents, the Gqoza, and Prince Cetshwayo, contender for the throne and his Usuthu, resulted in the deaths of Mbuyazi and five other sons of Mpande, as well as an estimated ten to fifteen thousand of his followers, women and children included, in a single day. John Dunn, who loyally fought on the side of Mbuyazi, along with a contingent of about fifty of his men, narrowly escaped with his life. Continue reading

Apartheid Archive Project

In 2011 I produced a photographic exhibition for the Apartheid Archive Project http://www.apartheidarchive.org

This project aims to archive accounts of living under apartheid, or recollections of the effects of apartheid by those who lived this experience or where adversely affected by apartheid. The submissions are entirely voluntary and can be made online at the above address, as can the existing ones be read online.


My submission is as follows;


My first encounter with apartheid happened very early, long before I could call it by its name. I was four when uncle Lawrence came to stay with us in our little cottage in Hluhluwe village, one of many men who sojourned with us whilst passing through or working in the area. He had come to build a school, and I was elated, because this evidently meant that, unlike the rest of my siblings, I would have the good fortune to remain at home, and not be sent off to some distant place to school. I was wrong. Continue reading