Imagine a collection of photos of Africans that
- depict people as human beings with agency,
- not as exotic natives
- were taken by local photographers,
- not colonial authorities
- are archived and preserved by female elders of the community,
- not an institution
- record people by their name
- not as unnamed “others.”
These are the themes that I found striking about the exhibition “Usakos. Photographs beyond Ruins: The Old Location Albums, 1920s to 1960s” at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill. The exhibition, presented by the Department of History and Philosophy, and the Cave Hill Libraries, is itself the result of an international collaboration.
The photographs (or rather, copies of the originals) depict the residents of the Old Location in the city of Usakos in Namibia, a place that now only exists in memory since in the 1950s its residents were forcibly removed and segregated due to apartheid laws. The photos, taken between 1920 and 1970, are witness to a way of life that collapsed due to these violent urban planning interventions. Taken by members of the community or itinerant photographers, these photos differ from colonial photos that depict people as “exotic others” and accessories of colonial dominions. The people here take center stage, literally and metaphorically. They look at the lens proudly and fiercely. Most importantly they are named.
The photos were collected by 4 women in the community and passed down from mother to daughter in what the curators of the exhibition call a “multigenerational practice of collecting…embedded in practices of story-telling, remembering and memory work within families.”* Beyond photos, the 4 women have also collected letters, church membership cards, tax receipts, and other miscellaneous visual mementos.
The women kept the pictures in albums, cans, leather and plastic bags, placed in in envelopes and meticulously recorded the names of the individuals depicted. Often the photographs would be framed and placed on sideboards or shelves, or hung on living room walls.
The way the photos are displayed in this particular exhibition is in separate collections, each named after the woman (or women) who has collected them as the “creator” of the collection. This is a refreshing and welcome change from the usual practice of naming collections after white “creators,” such as missionaries or colonial authorities, who took and collected such pictures “in the representational framework of ‘native administration and improvement’.”*
It is not difficult to realize the implications and power dynamics in this shift of assigning provenance of a collection to a community, or its members, rather than an “omnipotent,” always named, usually white and male, creator with a colonial gaze. It is not a person, but the whole community, a “community of records” (Bastian, 2006), that through the transgenerational agency of its women has given breath to the memories of the past through pictures of people that bear names.
The exhibition highlights once more the importance of independent grassroot initiatives and community archives that allow marginalized groups to reclaim their visibility by fighting the “symbolic annihilation” wrought by history (Caswell, 2014), in this case by seeking persistence of memory to counteract oblivion through apartheid violence.
A visual archives of a past surviving in people’s hearts through pictures that seek to give back to a community its right to exist, even if only through memory.
Congratulations to all the individuals and institutions that made it possible to turn this collection into a travelling exhibit so its moving story can reach wider audiences. Thank you, UWI Department of History and Philosophy, and the Cave Hill Libraries, for bringing this exhibit to Barbados.
*Text from the exhibition panels.
Jeanette Bastian, Bastian, “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation,” Archival Science 6 (2006): 267-284. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-006-9019-1.