Keep looking… polka dots and pearls
A woman with three arms? She is dressed fashionably and precise.
Her daughter, who is just as fashionable, is about to enter the darkness of a straw hut.
I sense that ribbon in her hair won’t be in place much longer.
Then there is this brutalist monstrosity in the background overlooking it all.
Is she staring at the monstrosity, calling her daughter back to safety, or conscious of her appearance in the presence of a photographer?
The child has turned her back on her mother, the mother has turned her back on the photographer and the photographer’s back is turned on me, the beholder.
We are all faceless.
I have an urge to keep looking. What is unfolding in front of me?
The viewpoint is slightly elevated and settles my gaze on the tower overlooking it all.
Is it a tower? With a sudden ‘eureka' moment of discovery, I do know what is going on here.
As a child, I visited this place many times with my parents during summer vacation road trips. It is a familiar landmark in South Africa: The Voortrekker Monument, its shape deeply rooted in my heritage. The monument is the symbol of the struggle of the Voortrekkers, my ancestors, who left the Cape Colony on The Great Trek. The Great Trek was a migration of Dutch-speaking settlers who travelled by wagon trains from the Cape Colony into the interior of modern South Africa, seeking to live beyond the Cape’s British colonial administration. The idea was to build a monument in honour of God. Today, you can find its image on many old cookie tins in secondhand markets, or on display in your grandmother’s kitchen ‘top shelf’ cookie tin collection. Often, they’re next to the British royal wedding tins, which contradicts the whole Afrikaner/British relationship. But that’s another story.
This photograph was taken by South African photographer, David Goldblatt, who passed away last year. I am very familiar with his work, but this photograph was unknown to me until I first encountered it, to my surprise, in an email. I met Goldblatt when I was 19, eager and ambitious to pursue documentary photography as my career and curious about this man photographing Afrikaners, who refused to let the work be used in a journalistic context. Goldblatt documented the tumultuous period in South African history that was still going on until just weeks before his death. But he also photographed white South Africa, taking the same dispassionate look at white nationalists, the comfortably wealthy, and the poor and disenfranchised he found among them.
Before he died, Goldblatt bequeathed his archive of negatives to Yale University. It was a controversial move; he had previously promised the trove to the University of Cape Town, but withdrew his collection after student protestors began burning campus artworks that they deemed to be ‘colonial symbols’.
I have not lived in South Africa for ten years and the thought of his work – including this photograph – being destroyed terrifies me. What the image shows is a nuance. It does not show the horrors of that period, but a woman who could have easily been my grandmother with my mother, both of whom possibly did attend this memorial event that took place once a year. The day commemorated the vow taken by the Voortrekkers before the Battle of Blood River, that if God gave them victory over the Zulus, they would always keep this as a day of thanksgiving. The Afrikaner dress code for these events was strictly formal; for women, pantyhose was a must.
The monochrome tones of the image create immense depth and compassion, so much so that I want to reach in and touch the woman’s shoulder, feeling the texture of her jumper.
In itself, the image is ordinary – a bit strange at first glance. Like many of Goldblatt’s photographs, it isn’t dramatic, the subjects unknown. Perhaps the little girl in the image is someone else’s daughter, just a little girl trying to peek inside the straw huts on display. But it shows the casual exterior of a society separated by apartheid, while at the same time capturing the uneasiness that pulsed through my childhood when growing up in South Africa, as well as through my parents' childhood. It recalls things I saw but did not see. And it drags up the old questions that lurk beneath my memories – how could such ordinariness take place while countless horrors were happening off camera?
Today, I am grateful to Goldblatt for this image, which helps me understand my own heritage, as well as what one chooses in order to represent our time. As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay ‘On Photography’, ‘The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.”
Kobie Nel (b.1984, South Africa) is an artist living in Bergen, Norway.
In our very first issues, we invited different people to write about an image they found memorable, under the headline ’Sinnbilde’, a column inspired by FOAM Magazine. Now, in Objektiv’s 10th year, as the ocean of images continues to swell, we’re reigniting this column online.