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.

 

I would like to start by talking about another exhibition, recently on

view at Tate Modern. It’s called Conflict, Time, Photography.

 

Its subject is what is now commonly referred to as “aftermath”

photographs, or in the words of the exhibition’s blurb, photographs

taken “from the seconds after a bomb is detonated to a former scene

of battle years after a war has ended”.1 What makes this exhibition

curatorially interesting is how the photographs are organised – not

alphabetically by photographer, chronologically by wars, or

geographically by conflict zones … but rather “according to how long

after the event they were created from moments, days and weeks to

decades later”.2

 

This organisation draws attention to the significance of distance in

time in understanding and engaging “aftermath” photography.

 

None of the conflicts represented in the Tate exhibition are older

than photography itself, that is older than 1839. And none of the

photographs were taken more than 30 years after the conflicts they

refer to or represent. Both of these factors work to make the distance

in time a relatively short one in the Tate exhibition.

 

Cedric himself is not new to “aftermath” photography. As part of

Narratives, Nostalgia, Nationhoods, the 3rd Apartheid Archive

Conference held here at Wits in 2011, Christo Doherty, Jo Ractliffe

and Cedric exhibited photographs that shared an interest in Cuito

Cuanavale, the site of the 1987/88 battle that shifted the balance of power in the Border War. For all three of them, their aftermath was

some 25 years after the conflict.

 

1 http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/conflict-time-photography, accessed 10 March

2 http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/conflict-time-photography, accessed 10 March

2015.

 

Cedric’s Unsettled: 100 Years of War is an exhibition about a period of

conflict that took place in the Eastern Cape between 1779 and 1879.

Divided into nine wars of varying scale and magnitude, they

cumulatively represent the longest running military action in the

history of colonialism in Africa.

 

Against the expression of a distance in time in the Tate exhibition,

Cedric’s subject here precedes the invention of photography by 60

years, and the distance in time between the original wars and the

photographs is as many as 230 years.

 

“Aftermath” here is deep in time.

 

While the first iteration of Unsettled was at photography festival in

France in 2013, its first fully-fledged articulation was at last year’s

National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, followed by showings

at Stellenbosch University, UNISA and now Wits.

 

In Grahamstown, the exhibition was held at Fort Selwyn.

 

Originally a garrison commissioned and built during the 6th Frontier

War (1834-36), it was used as such until the 1860s, and then again

during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Located at the top of

Gunfire Hill behind Rhodes University, Fort Selwyn is now part of the

Albany Museum complex.

 

Ironically, Cedric consciously avoided forts for this body of work, but

here he was – not of his own doing, mind you – exhibiting in a fort

from the Frontier Wars.

 

Because of its heritage status, Fort Selwyn is in many ways

“untouchable”, making it very difficult for artists and photographers

to interrupt and intervene in its history and identity. Heritage holds

history hostage to forms of forgetting.

 

In 2013, Anthea Moys used Fort Selwyn and the downhill slope of

Gunfire Hill to re-enact not a South African battle but rather one that

took place near Edinburgh in Scotland in 1745. It was SABRE (South

African Battle Re-enactments), with guns and canons, collectively

representing the English, vs Anthea Moys, alone with her bagpipes,

representing the Scottish rebels. As part of the inaugural Standard

Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art, questions of

authenticity were at the heart of the absurdity of what Moys’ was reenacting, and re-acting to.

 

 

In many ways Cedric’s project is about similar, albeit more serious,

questions of “authenticity” – its conception, constitution, circulation,

and currency.

 

While Cedric’s practice is commonly associated with Blood Relatives,

a deeply sustained portrait project on the descendants of the Dunn

family in KwaZulu-Natal, his shift of focus to the Eastern Cape is not

altogether un-connected in that one side of his family arrived in the

Eastern Cape with the 1820 Settlers. But more importantly for him it

rests in a personal question about the effects of history:

 

I’m not from the Eastern Cape, but I am from South Africa, and I am deeply

affected by the history of this region. In terms of subservience, the effect of

losing the Frontier Wars was far greater than losing the Boer War.3

 

Perhaps in consciousness to photography, as a mode of storytelling,

Cedric deflects any notion of telling anything complete, preferring

instead that his exhibition invites other, and further, navigations of

the turned over, and overturned histories of victors and vanquished.

 

Unsurprisingly, the landscape is the focal point of this exhibition. And

it is difficult to speak about landscape without invoking, or being

made to invoke “land”– occupied, desired, defended, lost and won.

 

Also unsurprisingly, this is not the end of Cedric’s journey into

“aftermath”. Unsettled is the first of what will eventually be three

connected bodies of work. Produced out of historical order, the

second will focus on the 150 years of conflict between Khoi and San

peoples, and Dutch settlers, and the third on slavery in South Africa.

 

The chief of the Ndlambe people in the Eastern Cape sent his

anointed historian to open Cedric’s exhibition in Grahamstown. It’s a

hard act to follow, so I’m going to reach for and rely on a quote from

one of Cedric’s influences in thinking through this project – Eduardo

Galeano.

 

Galeano is a Uruguayan journalist and novelist whose work has been

so preoccupied with questions of memory, and whose words are so

important to questions of aftermath, visibilities, distance,

authenticity, and storytelling:

 

Blatant colonialism mutilates you without pretense: it forbids you to talk, it

forbids you to exist. Invisible colonialism, however, convinces you that … it’s

not possible to speak, not possible to act, not possible to exist.4

 

3 Personal communication with Cedric Nunn, 10 March 2015.

4 Eduardo Galeano. 1989. The Book of Embraces. New York: WW Norton, 159.

 

Looking deep into time, Cedric’s photographs render visible that veil of

colonialism.

 

It gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.

Thank you.

 

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