Social Landscapes, also called ‘Transitions’, is a French/South Africa Season project. The interview by Jeanne Fouchet here is published in the book ‘Transitions’.
ITV Cedric Nunn
Cedric Nunn uses photography to remind South Africa of the unsuccessful resistance of its indigenous people to the confiscation of their land. Nunn’s photographs not only keep alive the tragic history of land-thefts, but also show how indigenous people remain dispossessed and excluded from their ancestral homes, as the exploitation of the region by global mining and agricultural interests continues unabated. Cedric Nunn took his photography series in the Eastern Cape Province, Grahamstown, Peddie, and Hogsback.
Q. You have always been a socially engaged photographer. How does the series you completed for this project continue that work?
The project I chose for this series was one I was intending to do independently for myself, and indeed, it has just been begun and is in need of a lot more work towards completion. It dovetailed with the “Social Landscape” project and therefore it was imperative to begin with it.
In 1913, the South African Parliament passed the Land Act, which had devastating consequences for the already vanquished indigenous South Africans. One hundred years later, we commemorate this heinous legislation which condemned the majority of South Africans to poverty and dispossession. I took this series to be an opportunity to reflect on this state, and to place the 1913 Land Act in context, which was that of a final legislation to finish what had been a long time in the making.
The period I look at, from 1779 to 1879, and termed the 100 Year War, was just a part of the process of the theft of land from the indigenous peoples. This surprising fact, a one hundred year-long was, has been exorcised from our popular memory, and I want it to be firmly etched in our consciousness. That way I think we will have the clarity to move forward to heal and rebuild a very damaged society.
• How is the Grahamstown area representative of what happened in other regions of the country?
The eastern Cape and Grahamstown were at the epicentre of the Xhosa’s unprecedented war of resistance to the colonising project. Before that the Khoi and San had led the resistance from 1650 to 1780. Immediately after the ultimate defeat of the Xhosa in 1879, came the war against the Zulu in that same year, with aggression and resistance against other tribes continuing until the Bambhaatha Rebellion of 1904. That was the final major act of resistance until the 1976 uprising of the youth in townships around the country.
The Xhosa war of resistance is largely forgotten in the public imagination, which seems impossible given its scale, and can only be credited to the success of the rewriting of history and propaganda which the masses have been subjected to.
• Can you tell me how it happened?
I have always felt challenged by landscape photography, and this challenge continues. But there is a real need to engage in the landscape, because it is so charged. It is a desired space and has been colonised, controlled, owned and interpreted in more ways then one. We, the dispossessed, have a real need to engage with the landscape, and regain our agency over it, put our stamp on it if you will, reinvent it with our meanings. Almost all the land taken in conquest is still in the hands of the conquerors. The high retail value of the land makes it almost impossible for ordinary black South Africans to acquire any. At present, a re-colonisation of land throughout Africa is underway, in which land is being bought up by foreigners in huge quantities as the realisation hits that food is the next frontier of war and control, and that Africa has large amounts of unpolluted land available relatively cheaply. The Xhosa people who mainly fought this war against the aggressors are largely seen today as a corrupt and defeated people. This series puts that process of degradation in context. And remembers the valiant heroes who fell and remain fallen.
•Do you think that your government ought to work harder for the return of, or compensation for, land that was confiscated? Are you optimistic about the future of your country ?
I believe government, had it the will, could do a lot more to transfer land to people in need. But I believe that government has been successfully lobbied by Big Agri-business into a close relationship which precludes small and emerging farmers. Government at present has little policy on assisting small and emerging farmers, and there seem to be no plans in the offing.
I used to be optimistic, but am now in doubt about the future of this country. This is mostly in relation to the huge geo-political shifts which are invariably impacting on our region. The contest and re-colonisation of Africa by the US superpower and China and India in particular are very important, though many countries are buying up huge swathes of Africa in their quest for food security and domination in the food industry. And of course the increasing contest for mineral resources and fossil fuels which is manifesting in occupations such as Africom. Africa is becoming volatile again, and divisions are being encouraged and exploited.
• You place people at the heart of your approach. But in your landscapes, they seem present only indirectly, and perhaps metaphorically through their habitations, their walls, and their animals. Did you do this intentionally?
In this project, which deals with distant memory, people are not the main focus, so they make only infrequent, and sometimes peripheral appearances.
• Among the photographs of the series, one is an urban landscape. It shows an almost empty street leading to a church. Did you take only one urban picture? What motivated you to take this particular one?
The urban landscape, the cathedral and town square of Grahamstown, are where the Ndhlambe people claim their ancestor had his ‘great kraal’ or palace.
• Why have you chosen to work in black-and-white, and not colour? Is it perhaps because colour might trivialize the landscape, or, to the contrary, make it too picturesque?
I have chosen, mainly for technical reasons to return to film, and to black and white for its simplicity of use. Black and white also allows me to photograph in film, which I prefer for archival purposes. I don’t have confidence in the archival quality of digital. Issues of trivialising the landscape are not foremost in my consideration.
• In many photographs we see a lot of walls and ruins.
The focus of this project was to tell the story from the perspective of the Xhosa resistance. Some other aspects had to be incorporated, such as the family credited with starting the conflict, and since there were ruins owned by this family which seemed to date back hundreds of years, I felt it pertinent to include them in the story. The other walls are of a significant battle which was conducted against garrisoned British forces at this little known location. And of course the British were garrisoned within the walls in the picture. There are many many forts which were erected by the British, and they are well documented, but I chose to take another approach which excluded them, because that is the British and European perspective. Of course, one could argue that one should remain neutral and include all aspects of the conflict, but since I chose to focus on the land, which was the desired and coveted asset in the conflict, and moreover, to make the story of resistance the focus, I excluded the many forts and superior technology which was at the heart of British aggression.
•Your photographs are testimonials, witnesses. What do you think is photography’s capacity to effect social change?
Photography has as much ability to effect social change as any other medium. Photography, still photography in this instance, allows one the opportunity to observe and reflect, thereby facilitating the feedback loop with which we critically engage in the act of living.
•The stories you talk about are full of violence, and yet your photographs are not at all violent. They are dramatic, but at the same time radiate an enigmatic peace and luminosity. Can you comment on these apparent paradoxes?
Some of the most violent people and situations present as paragons of peace. Genocidal tragedies played out in perfect settings, which increases their horror. I’m simply resisting amnesia which has set in and bogged us down in an unrealistic intellectual, moral, and political quagmire.