Carla Liesching critically examines South Africa’s colonial past and the imagery and mythology of the ‘world of whiteness’

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The photographer’s new book, Good Hope, draws on archival imagery and text to build a layered and fragmented narrative

“South Africa’s Cabo da Boa Esperança  – the Cape of Good Hope – was named in 1488 by the Portuguese. Due to its prime position as a half-way point along the Spice Route, it had a pivotal role in world commerce. In 1652, three Dutch East India Company ships arrived to cultivate a vegetable garden and establish a ‘refreshment station’. In 1795, the British sent a fleet of nine warships that took control of the territory. These events inaugurated centuries of colonial domination, genocide and land dispossession that pushed a Black and Indigenous majority into rural reserves and crowded urban townships.” 

Based between South Africa and Ithaca, New York, 36-year-old artist Carla Liesching is describing the history behind her new photobook Good Hope, published with Mack Books this week. In tandem with exploring these cultural circumstances, the Cape of Good Hope is also where the artist was born, and where her ancestors settled, so the book is a sort of reckoning with her own implication too. 

Carla Liesching. Image from Good Hope (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Carla Liesching. Image from Good Hope (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

A layered and fragmented narrative made up of both photographs and personal prose, Good Hope consists of images cut from tourist pamphlets, issues of old magazines such as National Geographic and Life, current newspapers and family albums. The clippings focus specifically on the gardens and grounds of the area. Liesching began collecting this material years ago, but it was only in 2017, while studying her MFA in Ithaca, that a project began to emerge.

“I had been writing fragmented prose and annotations in relation to collected pictures and objects – things that I perceived to be in some way icons and building blocks of whiteness,” she says. Then, during one of her research trips home, she discovered a box of apartheid-era South African Panorama magazines and Africa-themed National Geographics in a thrift store. “From Cape-to-Cairo railway plans, to gold and diamond mines and safaris – the collection of found imagery depicted visions of Southern Africa to attract tourists and investors alike,” she recalls. “Related as [the colonialism, tourism and trade] are, the project grew from here into one that involves both an intimate look at my own life as a white bodied person with an inheritance of white violence that needs to be unlearned, and a critical examination of the imagery, language and mythologies that keep this ‘world of whiteness’ so firmly in place.” 

Carla Liesching. Image from Good Hope (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK
Carla Liesching. Image from Good Hope (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
Sydelle Willow Smith. ‘Christmas Day, Hermanus. December 2016’ from the series Un/Settled, from Good Hope by Carla Liesching (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Working intuitively to group images together, Liesching quickly realised that the book form was an ideal container for this project. “Working with physical materials, poking holes, tearing things up, finding repeated motifs or hidden connections and patterns, and then rearranging these in multiple ways – these are strategies to avoid linearity and certainty, which are also colonial impulses,” she says. 

Although Good Hope takes a historical moment as its starting point, Liesching explains that ultimately it is very much about the present, in all its continued brutality and inequity. “My hope is that the images in Good Hope will function in an uncomfortably seductive way, so that the reader is drawn in, but can no longer view them neutrally, with their role in empire-building now laid bare,” she says. “I think this is important because these tropes of ‘adventure’ and ‘expedition’ become children’s stories, toys, movies, museum displays, school text-books and more.” Ultimately, she says, making art is about being a part of a conversation, and she hopes this book will act as an invitation for the reader to join in too.

Good Hope is published by Mack Books. To find out more, head to the website here

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London