Unsettled: 100 Years of War by Cedric Nunn
Wits Art Museum
10 March 2015
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
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
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,
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 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
It gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.