Children in front of Eaton Place, District Six. Richard Girdwood Collection, District Six Museum.
Reading Time: 7minutes
This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Ones to Watch, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.
Cape Town’s contemporary photography scene looks back to South Africa’s troubled past while experimenting in the present. Writer Nkgopoleng Moloi, who is currently studying for an MA in contemporary curatorial practice, guides us through the photographic landscape of the coastal city
Photography is central to my experience of Cape Town. I photograph while I wander, navigating the city’s complex social geographies through my lens. Historically Cape Town – and South Africa more broadly – has a rich tradition of documentary photography, one that derives, in part, from the country’s troubled and painful past. During the era of apartheid, which officially stretched from 1948 to the early 1990s, the regime exploited the medium to legitimise itself. However, photographers and citizens also employed it to challenge apartheid’s policies of repression and segregation with ‘resistance photography’ emerging to depict the humanity of racial groups oppressed by the state. Proponents include Ernest Cole (1940-1990), South Africa’s first Black photojournalist, who created subversive documentation of the period, while David Goldblatt (1930-2018) focused less on significant events and more on the conditions giving rise to them.
A sprawling coastal metropolis bordered by imposing mountainous peaks, Cape Town has been the home and subject of many photographers committed to capturing its pulse and complex histories. Billy Monk (1937-1982) explored the underbelly of the city nightlife during the 1960s; The Catacombs, a Cape Town nightclub where he was a bouncer, and its multiracial and pansexual attendees were his central focus. Meanwhile, Jansje Wissema (1920-1975) extensively documented inner-city life, predominantly through images of children playing in the city streets.
Significant contemporary photographers – although their work does not always directly engage the city – include Berni Searle (born 1964), Robin Rhode (born 1976) and Jo Ractliffe (born 1961). Ractliffe eschewed the straightforward documentary approach of her contemporaries for a more emblematic style, which continues to shape her practice. Searle employs photography to explore South Africa’s socio-political legacy as it relates to contemporary realities, while Rhode (who was born in Cape Town but is now Berlin-based) activates youth culture through street interventions and site-specific work across cities which include Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Although the scope of photographic output in the city is broad, today there is a strong link between performance and photography in the work of many contemporary artists. Lhola Amira and Thania Petersen, for instance, engage performative tropes within their practices, interrogating legacies of colonialism with a particular focus on memory, heritage and tradition. Buhlebezwe Siwani, Sethembile Msezane and Thandiwe Msebenzi are among other emerging South African photographers employing performance in innovative ways.
Throughout history, Cape Town’s photographic landscape has responded to the city’s political climate. When reflecting on this, the opening lines of Human Archipelago (a 2019 publication responding to the state of the world) come to mind. Here, photographer Fazal Sheikh and writer Teju Cole, who collaborated on the book, assert: “The current political moment suggests a number of responses: combat, collective action, resistance, refusal. The work that artists do may engage with any or all of these.” And many of the photographers and sites explored over the following pages engage the responses articulated by Sheikh and Cole in varied ways.
Based at 157 Victoria Road, Woodstock, this rare bookstore and pan-African research platform draws together a multitude of voices from the continent and diaspora through music, radio and literature.
Although currently under threat of closure due to lack of funding, District Six Museum remains one of the few – if not only – successful community-led and community-run museums in South Africa. The building is a site of resistance. Within its walls are the histories of the District Six community, much of which the apartheid government violently and forcibly removed from the area, declaring it ‘whites only’ in 1966. The District Six Museum Foundation was formed in 1989, following the critical 1988 Hands Off District Six Conference: a landmark call to establish a memory project to honour the District Six community. The foundation encouraged the establishment of the museum, which opened its doors in December 1994, occupying a historic Methodist church that remains its home today. In the early 2000s, it also expanded to another building one block away to house the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre. The museum holds a wealth of archival material relating to District Six from the 1940s to the 1990s, including photographic collections comprising material from former residents and images from photographers documenting the area during this period. Alongside the archive, the institution has also staged numerous photographic exhibitions, notably Going and Coming Back (2014), which showcased images of Cape Town by Bryan Heseltine. The South Africa born photographer shot the work in the late 1940s and early 50s at the start of the apartheid regime. He moved to England shortly after; the museum’s show being the first exhibition of the work in Heseltine’s home country since 1952. The photographs are distinct from conventional representations of Black civilians during apartheid. They capture the diversity of life across the city before the regime completely took hold.
A4 Arts Foundation
23 Buitenkant Street District Six Cape Town 8000 A4arts.org
A4 Arts Foundation (named after the initial letters of Academy, Apparatus, Access and Archive, which epitomise the institution’s ethos) occupies three floors of a coral-coloured building, just a block away from the District Six Museum [page 24]. Conceived in 2017 by collector Wendy Fisher and curator Josh Ginsburg, it is “a site for experiment, and an experiment itself”, and operates as a free, not-for-profit laboratory for the arts. Its extensive programming spans artist residencies, exhibitions, workshops, screenings and exchanges. Recent initiatives include the Circle Series: an opportunity for independent, emerging artists to collaborate with upcoming curators and a dedicated writer, creating an exhibition in A4’s public library space. In autumn 2020, Andile Phewa, who studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, staged his show, Missing Subject. The exhibition explored memory and the absence of Phewa’s father through images of empty buildings and architectural landscapes. Meanwhile, between September 2020 and March 2021, author, critic and editor Sean O’Toole engaged the South African photobook through A4’s six-month programme, Course of Enquiry, which allows cultural producers to offer insight into their research methods.
In the mid 20th century, hair salons played a central role in Cape Town’s queer community. They were places of both employment and socialising, and the majority were gathered in District Six. In the book Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, a document of the South African lesbian and gay struggle, Dhianaraj Chetty describes: “The centre of their world seemed to be Hanover Street in District Six, which had a cluster of salons around which gay life evolved. Salon crawls involved hovering, gossiping and socialising along a slow-moving path from one salon to another.”
Kewpie (1941-2012) was a celebrated queer icon and drag queen who began frequenting Hanover Street and the surrounding area in her early teens, hanging out at the salons instead of attending school. She would soon open a salon herself and become a well-known fixture of the neighbourhood, known colloquially as the Daughter of District Six (Kewpie’s gender identity was fluid, however, she and her friends generally used feminine pronouns, referring to each other as ‘sisters’ and ‘girls’). For Kewpie and her collective, parties, balls and performances, for which the group donned exquisite outfits, filled their busy social calendar.
Although the apartheid government increasingly policed sexual behaviour during the 1950s and 60s, Kewpie and her friends were undeterred and expressed their identities openly. Despite laws segregating the city, Capetonians, including Kewpie, continued moving around freely. However, on 11 February 1966, the regime declared District Six a ‘whites-only area under the 1950 Group Areas Act and began implementing forced removals, systematically relocating residents to racially defined residential developments. The legislation ultimately destroyed the community.
In 1997, Kewpie donated over 700 images to the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), many of which are available online; records of Cape Town’s rich queer scene. Although District Six no longer exists as it once did, the area continues to inspire historical production, investigation and expression – the District Six Museum [page 24] and A4 Arts Foundation [page 21] being just two examples.
Goodman Gallery, which has outposts in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London, was founded by the late Linda Givon in 1966. Its first iteration was in Johannesburg and, despite opening during the apartheid regime, Givon maintained the gallery as a resolutely non-discriminatory space. It was an approach that informed the artists she endeavoured to represent. “I decided to go for the artists, when I could, who were confrontational and who were addressing socially important issues,” Givon said in a 2003 interview with The New York Times. “[When I opened the gallery] there was a gap to be filled, to promote art that wasn’t desperately decorative or desperately colonial.”
During the apartheid era, the gallery’s exhibitions included work by the likes of Sue Williamson and David Goldblatt, the latter also recently occupying Goodman’s Cape Town space. Today, Givon’s ethos remains with the gallery representing a host of socially engaged artists, including Alfredo Jaar, Shirin Neshat and Hank Willis Thomas. Not long ago, the Cape Town gallery moved from the suburb of Woodstock to a new space: a 19th-century convent in De Waterkant complete with arches, colonnades and courtyards.
On our radar Usakos: Photographs
Beyond Ruins chrflagship.uwc.ac.za/photographs-beyond-ruins
This book is based on an exhibition of the same name, staged at the District Six Museum in February 2016. It comprises images from three private collections kept by four female residents of Usakos, a small Namibian town that, in the early 1960s, experienced segregation by the apartheid regime.
“My ideas are universal but born out of a South African context,” observed Johno Mellish in a 2020 interview with METAL Magazine. Born, raised and living in Cape Town, Mellish’s work absorbs his surroundings, whether abandoned cars, domestic interiors or vast landscapes. His photographs stand alone, heaving with tension, detail and atmosphere. Each image appears as a universe unto itself, ripe for interpretation. In one frame, a woman wanders into a decrepit lift occupied by a man encircled by televisions, while in another, a thin mist coats the undulating green of hills rising into the distance.
Mellish completed a postgraduate degree in photography at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, before which he studied for a BA at AFDA Film School. Despite originally studying film-making, he knew photography was his favoured medium, and many of his images retain a cinematic quality: there is a strong sense of Mellish staging the scenes – the people populating them becoming actors, playing out his vision.
Art galleries crowd the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, and these include the independent space Blank Projects and commercial gallery, Stevenson. Founded in 2005, Blank Projects does not exclusively exhibit photography although innovative photographic shows fill its exhibition calendar. Most recently, the work of Sabelo Mlangeni, who the gallery represents, occupied the cavernous space. Titled Isivumelwano, the show featured black-and-white photographs of wedding ceremonies among Black communities across South Africa. Mlangeni frames these rituals of love as political acts, driving “cultures from subjugation to celebration” in the post-apartheid period.
Nearby Stevenson, which has a gallery in Johannesburg too, represents significant South African photographers including Zanele Muholi, Jo Ractliffe and Robin Rhode, and offers a photography-heavy programme of shows.
Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer based between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
She is currently studying for an MA in Contemporary Curatorial Practices at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her work has appeared in Elephant Magazine, Contemporary And (C&), Mail & Guardian, and ArtThrob.