The retrospective gaze, essay by Nick Shepherd

Martyrs… saints… sell-outs… the barb in the title of this exhibition invites us to engage in a special kind of looking, not just to look, but to look back. We see the events depicted in the photographs, their captions put them in the present tense, but our present is very different from the present of the image. We are invited to think about the gap, the distance in time, all of the intervening years and events. The young lion caught returning the camera’s gaze, how did it work out for him? BEE beneficiary? Cabinet minister? Poor and marginalized? Or was his future truncated by a bullet? The three women striding down the pavement, what did postapartheid South Africa hold for them? They have the look of lawyers or activists, feisty and determined. The building in the background is something official and governmental. They are on their way to court, they are about to confront state power where it lurks but they are not intimidated, the future belongs to them (their smiles tell us so). So how did that work out? We know the general narrative, the broad brush-strokes, but what about the individual life, the story of each of the women? What hopes fulfilled, what compromises, what disappointments? We are reminded of the many meanings of the word “struggle”, our deep investment in a notion of struggle to define a period of history. There is “the struggle” (or more correctly, the Struggle, capital-S), and then there are the many little struggles that make up daily life. We are also reminded of a crucial difference: what it means to struggle with hope, like the hope that shines through the image of the three women, as opposed to struggle without hope, the daily grind.

Benny Gool, Adil Bradlow and Zubeida Vallie are each remarkable photographers, and their work shown in this exhibition depicts turbulent and much documented times. The achievement of curator Siona O’Connell has been to frame this work in ways that avoid the traps of available dominant narratives. There is the nostalgic narrative that places events in a golden past. Once we were lions! Then there is the nationalist narrative with its simplifying lines, its desire to find a moral scripting, its desire to museumize and memorialize in the service of the state. In terms of these dominant narratives the story goes something like this: there was an era, the Struggle, a time of heroic leaders and virtuous masses, which delivered up something called freedom, or Freedom. Now that we are Free (now that the work of freedom has been accomplished) we look to a different future, defined by different imperatives (“globalization”, “development”). The Struggle is done and dusted, and “struggle” itself becomes a trope, to be used in corporate image building or in brand South Africa. Apartheid, and by implication apartheid oppression, is behind us, belongs in a museum. History, that is, capital-H History, becomes a kind of spotlight. For the period of the Struggle, South Africa appeared on the stage of History. Our lives were heightened and events appeared more than themselves, were doubled by the imminence of anticipated futures. Then the spotlight of History moved on – maybe to China, these days everything begins and ends in China – and we were left to lead exemplary lives after History: first as a rainbow, then as a collapsing rainbow, then as a cautionary tale.

Such simple narratives are always seductive, the problem is that they leave us marooned in an ambiguous present. The strength of this exhibition is that it invites us to think in more complex ways about time, historiography and the retrospective gaze. Siona O’Connell asks in her introductory essay: “just how did we get to this point? … and how on earth do we get beyond it?” The framing problematique here is about individual lives and fates. It is also about unfinished business. The struggle is not in the past as the rainbow narrative suggests, but in the present and future. Apartheid is over, but its legacies are part of our present, deeply inscribed in South African lives and landscapes. To inhabit the present – to inhabit our present – is to think not just about lives, but about after-lives. We engage history from the perspective of a haunted and overdetermined present. We look back but our looking back is shadowed, burdened by the sense of anticipated and unrealized futures. We want to make sense of the recent past but we keep tripping over the entanglements of the present. So much struggle, so much sacrifice, and – yes – such a sense, or an anticipation, of history in the making… but how do we round off and complete the story? More struggle… more sacrifice… a diminishing sense of history…

Of course, photography as medium has long been discussed in relation to notions of hauntedness, doubling and the retrospective gaze, jamming with conceptions of linear time and a simple divide between past and present. In some ways, to look at these images is to look into a mirror, not at the reflection of a present self, but of a past self, of who we might have been. Perhaps that is why I found the experience of this exhibition unexpectedly painful. Like the lives in these images, my own life maps onto South Africa’s political history in particular ways. I arrived at the University of Cape Town as a firstyear student in 1985. My political education took place in the mid-to-late 1980s. There is a period in your life when you encounter the world vividly, when all things are possible. For me, this coincided with a period of struggle and idealism in public life. You see us, the old 1980s lefties who never moved on. Or we moved on and became cynical. Or we moved on and became rich. Martyrs… saints… sell-outs… perhaps, after all, these are exceptional fates. For the majority of us, maybe for the majority of the people depicted in these photographs, the experience of the intervening years has been more ambiguous. Neither martyrs nor saints. Neither saints nor sell-outs. A bit of both? A bit of all three? A story of small compromises and accommodations, shifting expectations, ideals unmet and abandoned. Growing old, growing older. But what I cannot get away from is the hope: it’s there in every image, and it has the power to skewer the heart.