Going and coming back: curating the post-apartheid archive

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter


In the early 1950s Bryan Heseltine made a striking series of photographs in a number of townships and areas of the city of Cape Town, South Africa. The images depict the city’s African inhabitants and the rural to urban transition that was taking place on its periphery; and the collection includes probably the most extensive visual record of Windermere, an informal settlement whose residents would be subject to forced removal in the later 1950s. The aim of this chapter is to explore the issues that have come to the fore whilst working with this collection. Specifically, I want to concentrate on the consequences of moving from historical research to the curation and display of the photographs for contemporary audiences. The process of bringing historical images back into view poses a number of tricky questions or problems that have to be confronted; not least, in this case, the dislocation of the photographs from the place where they were made and the consequent imperative to re-establish this connection. These are issues for theoretical debate, but also ones that have practical consequences. In order to provide a framework for the discussion I refer to the ideas of agency and curatorial ethics. To do archival research or to create exhibitions from archival collections must be, in part at least, about releasing the agency enfolded within the archive back into the world. Any re-display of archival images has to be in some way accountable to their historical depth and the forms of agency they embody. The chapter uses this specific collection as an opportunity to examine the complex and multiple forms of agency in the archive and the ethical responsibilities owed by researchers and curators to the photographs, to the photographer and to the subjects in the photographs. Finally, I reflect on the possibility that the photographs might be redeemed from their troubled past and their display provide sites for dialogue and imagination in the post-apartheid present.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe African photographic archive: research and curatorial strategies
EditorsC. Morton, Darren Newbury
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781472591258
ISBN (Print)9781472591241
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2015


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