Grahamstown in focus: Cedric Nunn
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.
Born in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal and raised in the farming town of Ixopo, the well-know South African photographer has warm feelings about Grahamstown, also at the heart of a farming community.
Nunn has been a Mellon Scholar at Rhodes University since August.
“There’s a sense of being in an urban environment here, but always with a complete connection to open space,” he says. “That’s quite an unusual feature in a town.”
And the perception that it’s in the middle of nowhere simply isn’t true, he says, pointing out that the ocean, mountains, the semi-desert of the Karoo and bigger cities are all an easy drive from here.
He also loves that it’s imbued with student culture.
“That’s refreshing,” he says. “It affects social life in the city –there’s a liveliness you don’t find in other Eastern Cape Towns. Because it’s a small town, it’s very apparent.”
But he also finds Grahamstown very jarring.
“First there’s the geography – there’s something about the fact that it’s in a ‘bowl’. There’s a nakedness, with no place to hide.”
Then there’s its dramatic history, which is one of trauma, he says. “Most townships around the country are hidden from view. This one confronts you.”
His work during his time here is partly reflected in a book called Transition, a product of the Social Landscape Photography Project.
The project forms part of the 2012/2013 French cultural exchange seasons.
In the book, Nunn’s project is one of 12. Fellow South African photographers are Santu Mofokeng, Pieter Hugo, Zanele Muholi, Jo Ratcliffe and Thabiso Sekgala. Philippe Chancel, Raphael Dallaporta, Alain Willaumem, Harry Gruyaert, Patrick Tourneboeuf and Thibaut Cuisset complete the French contingent.
In the book’s introduction the project is described as a way to “engage in a discussion thathighlight the complexity of our perception of place, space and belonging”.
Land, and landscape in South Africa, it points out, are imbued with its racial and apartheid history and with “conjectures of ownership, belonging and identity”.
Nunn’s Mellon Scholarship allowed him to focus on his 100 Years project. His particular interest is the 50-year period during which the 1820 settlers and those who followed them served as placeholders for the British Imperial project.
He’s interested in the grey areas and contradictions among the received histories of oppressor and oppressed.
As a photographer he tries to explore the dialogue betweenpeople and landscape. He refers toblog Africasacountry.com as a similar example of how people are seeking to reposition Africa in the popular imagination.
He has found the landscape of Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, to be beautiful and evocative.
“However, I have come to look at it in a particular light – in a binary way. In conventional terms, it offers the opportunity for a landscape photographer to immerse oneself in it.
“But there’s also this underlying history.”
Nunn feels that history is strongly present in the town’s psyche. He feels there is a constant tension.
On the one hand, he says, many of the ancestors of the township’s inhabitants were viewed by their contemporaries as collaborators with the imperial forces. He wonders how that affects their make-up.
Among the province’s white inhabitants, there’s a Frontier mentality.
“And rightly so,” he says.
“No one has really looked at the trauma to which the settlers were subjected in the first 50 years of colonization. That trauma has carried through generations. It has led to a hardness. It’s embedded like a callous.”
“So I think I see a fractured psyche.”
In his travels to remote towns in the Eastern Cape he was struck by the decay. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing.
“You could see it as a restructuring of society, from one order to another.”
Nunn was a member of progressive photography collective Afrapix in the 80s. It was during that period of anti-apartheid resistance that his stark, black-and-white images, together with the work of Afrapix co-founders Paul Weinberg, Peter Mackenzie and Omar Badsha, and others, became well known across South Africa and the world.
He has since mentored young photographers at universities across the world, and as director of the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg.
His time based at the School of Journalism and Media Studies has been divided between mentoring photojournalism students and the 100 Years project.
A review of the book Transition is due soon on the blog Africasacountry.com. Photographs from the project will be displayed in an exhibition at the Albany Museum during Festival this year.