Saturday, 21 September 2013

Revisiting apartheid policy in Nunn’s Call and Response

By Tajudeen Sowole
 TWO weeks after the obnoxious apartheid policy of South Africa took centrestage — a movie adaptation of former president, Nelson Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom premiered at the just ended Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Canada  — archived images of this morally debasing racial segregation taken by photographer, Cedric Nunn, also opened in Lagos.
Guests at the Lagos opening of Cedric Nunn's photography tour exhibition Call and Response
Titled Call and Response, the show opened a few days ago and will be on till October 3 at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos.
Though independent of the Long Walk To Freedom movie premiere, the common theme and coincidence suggest that the memories of apartheid will continue to reverberate across generations.  Specifically, Call and Response stresses the power of pictures, in retrospective context.

Ahead of the opening at Omenka, Nunn, who is of mixed-race parentage, shares his experience as an independent photographer working in the dangerous terrain of his country’s past racist era.
And as Call and Response – a tour exhibition – is making its Lagos stopover, the show, according to Nunn, “most likely will be the last in the two and a half years tour”.

Berthing in Lagos appears like a rare opportunity, given the artist’s reluctance to over expose his works. Produced in their ‘original’ format of black and white, the works are not likely to be on virtual viewing given his distrust of digital archiving.

Nunn’s over three decades photography career, spurred by what he discloses as his “passion for social transformation”, appears like a struggle between patriotism/professionalism and racial challenges.

However, professionalism wins the battle as the lens of his camera focuses on the streets, over the decades, capturing the ‘ordinary people’ largely affected by the devastation of apartheid era. “I capture ordinary South African people, on the street, in the farm”.

Among the images is that on the victim of farm tenancy, forcibly evicted from a white -owned farm. Grouped in the ‘tenant farmer family’ class of the apartheid era, the woman as captured by Nunn’s camera “reports her plight to community elders” at a communal gathering.

Seated in the foreground of the work, she gestures with her left arm, as the community head listens with keen interest, but hardly would able to reverse the victim’s plight.

From one of many gruesome killings, comes what Nunn explains as media people’s encounter with “a youth who was the target of an attack in which 12 members of his family were shot dead during a massacre”.

Quite a chilling experience, in this particularly picture is bullet holes in the walls on which the lad leans. On the right side of the bereaved, in the background, are two women, perhaps, survivors of the attack, but miserable in apparent captivity, even at home.

A revisit of the early systematic destruction and elimination of the natives is seen in the picture of two ladies, which the photo artist labels “The Green sisters”. He says the picture was taken in the back street of a guest-house built in the 1880s by the ladies’ ancestor, John Dunn. nNunn notes that as at the time the picture was taken in the 1980s, “nothing remains of this house, which was dismantled by land invaders”.

Denigration of the people – blacks and mixed race parents alike - continues such that the cadre of nationals known as ‘tenant farmer family’ are left with noshing, but camps after being “evicted from white-owned farm”, so suggests a portrait of a man in front of the sprawling camps in the background. 

Being privileged to have worked as an independent photographer during the turmoil eras to the current period of South Africa’s political history, it would be of interest to see how Nunn groups his works based on focus or subjects. The exhibits, he says, were taken between 1979 and 1980s. Perhaps denying the viewing public and art historians’ opportunity to see his works in their periods is the fact that archives back home have taken custody of some of the works. “This exhibition cannot really represent the periods as more are in our archive in South Africa”, Nunn explains.

And that his works and that of other photographers who were anti-apartheid campaigner are worthy of archival value today is a contrast to the position of the state during the Pieter Botha regime. In fact, being an independent photographer then appeared like the only option left; not exactly a choice.

Given Nunn’s mixed parentage, and “based on job reservation policy of the apartheid regime, “I was not qualified to have my work published”. That restriction, it seemed, pushed him to get his works across to the international media, church and NGOs publications.

On segregation, he recalls how he “was particularly struck by the racism in my own mixed-race community”. But trying to understand the complexity of racism, other issues seemed to have beclouded the core focus.

These include learning “why it was that mixed-race people were so prone to alcoholism, unemployment, broken marriages, teenage pregnancy, and other social ills”.
Cedric Nunn’s capture of a survivor of massacre who lost 12 family members during apartheid South Africa. 
While elated that these images and similar ones shots by other ant-apartheid photographers contributed a lot to the change achieved in South Africa today, Nunn laments that the real freedom is still far.

“We have political freedom, but not economic freedom; the wealth of South Africa is still in the hands of the same class of people that held it many decades ago”.

For Omenka Gallery, bringing Nunn to Lagos has been credited to The Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF), in conjunction with South Africa-based Galerie Seippel. Director of Omenka, Oliver Enwonwu, says Call and Response “has shown at Galerie Seippel, Cologne; David Krut Projects, New York; and Mozambican Association of Photographers Gallery, Maputo”.  

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