Presence & Absence - photography and the aesthetics of historical return and disappearance
(University of Basel)
Paper short abstract:
This paper looks at late 19th century Cape Town prison photographs of Kgosi Galeshewe, a Bathlaping political leader, in the context of contemporary memory studies in Southern Africa. It explores the place of photography in mediating affective responses to the presence and absence of the dead.
Paper long abstract:
This paper looks at late 19th and early 20th century Cape colonial prison photographs. The collection consists of albums that assemble 7000 portrait photographs of men imprisoned at the Breakwater Convict Station in Cape Town. The albums were produced in the context of attempts to reform and professionalise the colonial penal system, and they mirror the place photography held in such initiatives as a 'scientific' and 'modern' image form and medium. As an archival collection, these photographs can be read as both the result of colonial criminal identification practices and as examples of colonial regimes of knowledge production through which bodies were marked along the lines of race, gender, ethnicity and nationality. While keeping in mind this institutional and epistemological background, the paper engages some of the photographs in this collection within the framework of South African memory studies and in view of a scholarly discussion on the work of the dead. I am interested in exploring how photographs of late 19th century convicts, and especially the portraits of Kgosi Galeshewe, a late 19th century Bathlaping political leader, configure and mediate the presence and absence of the dead, and how they can be understood as visual and material forms through which we are being summoned by the past. This will help propose ways to reconcile the colder comportment of historians towards the past, with the affective language and expressive cultural registers embraced by those who care for the ancestral and long for the presence of those who are no more.
Photographs as objects of affective connection and disruption