#9 Alternative Narratives IssueBuilding on the curatorial theme presented for our inaugural Photoworks Festival, this issue of Photography+ seeks to delve deeper into global perspectives on photography, via new bodies of work by emerging artists and historical perspectives missed or overlooked in the past. Our writer in residence, Marissa Chen, speaks to the founders of the Angkor Photo Festival. Meanwhile, Hudda Khaireh of collective Thick/er Black Lines builds and expands on the ideas she presented during the Photoworks Festival in an article titled Black looks? Capturing the (de)colonial in the everyday. Our curator, Julia Bunnemann, revisits the work of Lorraine Leeson and Peter Dunn through a contemporary lens. We also have two special expanded folios features for this issue. Read our conversation with Diana Markosian about Santa Barbara, her debut monograph and a compelling reconstruction of her family’s first years in the United States after leaving Russia in the 1990s. We also caught up with Renata Bolívar, who has shared images from her latest project which takes us into the darkness of the Columbian highways.
Black looks? Capturing the (de)colonial in the everyday
Public monuments function as technologies of memorialising, mnemonic devices that commemorate national narratives. Increasingly, they have also been sites of intense scrutiny, as the histories these monuments commemorate the bodies they venerate – generally white male military and merchant figures – have been criticised for their failure to account for the violence that undergirds these stories of national triumph. Although the imagined public that these monuments originally spoke to – or purported to speak to – has changed dramatically, the values they communicate arguably continue to structure and have implications for daily life.
In June, protests erupted around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. In Bristol, demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest toppled a statue of 17th- and 18th-century merchant slaver Edward Colston and shoved it into the harbour. This action made explicit Britain’s often-underplayed role in the transatlantic slave trade, drawing attention to how the nation accrued wealth and power via the exploitation and dehumanisation of Black bodies and helped to shape the anti-Black logics that saw African peoples as enslavable, still endanger Black lives in the USA and beyond.
Photography, like monuments, can also function as a memorial. But more than that, it can serve as a tool to excavate the very Black people and Black heroes whose existence is erased in colonialist monuments. Photoworks-exhibited photographer Sethembile Msezane (born 1991) and visual artist Hew Locke (born 1959) both use photography in such a manner, creating counter-narratives that centre the lives of Black people and carve out public space for their histories. From their respective geographical and social locations in Cape Town and Bristol, these artists contest accounts of globality that do not address the foundational role that the violent institutions of slavery and colonialism played in wealth creation, state formation and power consolidation.
In the series Kwasuka Sukela (2015–17), Msezane captures the moment when activists in the Rhodes Must Fall movement succeeded in their iconoclastic demands to remove the bronze memorial to 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus. Entitled Chapungu – the Day Rhodes Fell (2015), the images depicts Msezane, adorned in wings evocative of the chapungu bird (a symbol of the historic Kingdom of Zimbabwe and Shona cosmology), engaged in a one-woman performance-art piece against the backdrop of the protest. A member of the so-called born-free generation – ie those who came of age after the end of Apartheid – Msezane’s work is in conversation with fellow student ‘Fallists’ who are disappointed with the ‘systematic failures of contemporary South Africa’. ‘I have located the discomfort and dislocation as being partly due to the markers in the landscape that subliminally echo a class and racial divide that still pervades our society,’ Msezane explained in an interview with Humanities News. ‘Whilst emphasis has been placed on the rhetoric of transformation, there is also a need to have a conversation about decolonising these structures – which current student Fallists movements are acting on.’
In Chapungu – the Day Rhodes Fell, the singular figure of a highly ornamented Black woman raised above the crowd invites viewers to consider not only what monuments communicate, but also whom they are communicating to: the self, the crowd, the nation, the ancestral. The image is simultaneously reportage and mythology, collapsing time to bring together pre-colonial southern Africa, European imperialism and the post-Apartheid era to reify histories that are hinted at by terms like ‘muticultural’ and ‘rainbow nation’. Msezane functions as an embodied, living memorial that raises up the South Africa subjugated under Rhodes’s English master race narrative but also indicts contemporary national failures to address the violence and discrimination experienced by women and queer people as part of the ongoing process of decolonisation.
Locke’s photographic series Restoration (2006), which was commissioned by Spike Island for the Church of St Thomas the Martyr in Bristol, highlights the complicity of church, state and merchants of capital in the enslavement of African peoples. Locke takes Colston – clear evidence of opposition to Colston’s statue among Bristol’s communities of colour long before this year’s protests – and key enlightenment thinker and former MP for Bristol Edmund Burke as his subjects. In Colston, a photograph of the titular statue was blown up and then embellished with cowrie shells, beads used by colonialist merchants in Africa, as well as cheap costume jewellery. Locke explains that he screwing these gaudy trinkets into the image ‘in the same way that you would have devotional objects fitted onto a Madonna in Spain’ to represent Colston ‘encrusted in the gold that he’s acquired, but the gold is fake, it’s cheap’. British values face a reckoning and are found wanting, as Locke draws attention to the intrinsic connection between Bristol’s wealth and its involvement in slavery, while also implicating the state structures and institutions that encouraged and enabled these processes.
By analysing how modern nation-states are tethered to racism and colonialism through public monuments, Msezane and Locke invite the viewer to think beyond the Black Atlantic and towards a global idea of race undergirded by the mass enslavement and genocide of African peoples. Their photographic works, and the meanings they overlay, force us to question the stories images tell and the function that these narratives have in society. The stakes of these inquiries are high, and Meszane and Locke’s work provides some much-needed space to give them due consideration.
Hudda Khaireh is a writer and member of the collective Thick/er Black Lines.Learn more about Thick/er Black Lines here Read more Photography+ here