Farren van Wyk

Photo No. 20 Issues by the State Information Office, Pretoria. A Cape Coloured Girl

In Absent Presences. Decolonizing our Views of the South Africa House and its collections eleven, contributors explore the origins of the archive built around white tribal affiliation. Absent Presences, launched in March 2024, is published on the occasion of the House’s centenary. Contributions by Nathan Tantraal, Ronelda S. Kamfer, Pieter du Plessis, Christi van der Westhuizen, Vincent Kuitenbrouwer, Manon Braat, Marian Counihan, Nkule Mabaso, Tycho Maas. Contributions by our editors Farren van Wyk and Bart Luirink are published by ZAM too.

Barbara Henkes, André Paijmans and Margriet van der Waal (eds.) Absent Presences: Decolonizing Our Views of the Zuid-Afrikahuis and its Collections. Amsterdam: Zuid-Afrikahuis, 2024. Volume 3 in the SZAHN Series.  

A pdf of all texts can be found here

Photo No. 20 Issues by the State Information Office, Pretoria. A Cape Coloured Girl

When the invitation to write an essay about an object in the Zuid-Afrikahuis (South African House, ZAH) came my way, I had the opportunity to see and choose from an ar- chive of portraits of Coloured people that was taken dur- ing the apartheid era. During this visit, I found a portrait titled ‘Photo No. R.20 Issued by the State Information Office, Pretoria. A Cape Coloured Girl’.

The portrayed woman has curled hair, styled in a European fashion, pearls around her neck and a fruit and flower-patterned dress with embroidered lace around the shoulders. The background of clouds does not give a hint of a location as the portrait was taken from a lower angle. Her smile is positioned away from the camera and makes one think that this pose is directed by the photographer. Looking closer at the portrait, one of her teeth has a golden cap. The only information we have about this portrait is that it was taken in Cape Town, according to the label on the back of the photograph. No date is written down, no name of the photographer, nor the name of the portrayed lady.

Yet seeing this portrait, the woman — I’d like to call her ‘the Lady’ — touched me in a very specific way. She reminded me of how my grandmother looked, and opened up memories of my childhood in South Africa. I remember dressing up for Sunday mass. All the women in my family did that and my grandmother had chiffon dresses and tailored suits. We did not eat breakfast but our family Sunday lunches made by my grandmother were abundant with soup, curry, rice, potatoes and different vegetables. Our family also threw lavish par- ties where my mother played the latest hits of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Lauren Hill with the Fugees. Christmases with loads of gifts under our colourful Christmas tree. My mom told me that my grandparents were very poor but looking back at those memories through the family photo albums, as they were photographed by aunties and uncles, we do not look poor. We look sophisticated, because my family found ways to buy what was in fashion, get hold of the newest tunes, and spend days at the beach with potato salads and braai meat.

Photograph from the Van Wyk Family Album. Farren is the baby on the right side being held by her mother. (Photographer unknown, 1993, Salsoneville, Port Elizabeth (SA).)

‘The Lady’ is an echo that reminds me of memories I have of my home, but unfortunately, the ZAH has no other information about her. There are only speculations and no official documents about the history of the portrait and its journey from South Africa to the ZAH. The backside of the photograph links this portrait with South Africa’s former State Information Office. It may have arrived at the ZAH collection through a personal contact, although information confirming this is lacking. What is known of the State Information Office is that it had a special department aimed to influence public opinion abroad and used portraits such as these as propaganda material to counter the anti-apartheid organisations. In this manner, the Office provided ‘knowledge’ about South Africa and the visual language needed to depict how sophisticated the country and its inhabitants were.

The photo of ‘ the Lady’ was published in one such propaganda publication by the State Information Office — on the various population ‘groups’ in the country — in a chapter on ‘Cape Coloured’ South Africans, preceded by a chapter on ‘Hottentots’, and followed by a chapter on ‘Cape Nguni’ people. The photo of ‘the Lady’ has as caption ‘This Coloured girl is employed as an assistant in a Cape Town photographic studio’. Her photo is one of four photos referencing various professional ‘ types’: a fisherman, a training college headmaster, and teacher. (The Peoples of South Africa: A Pictorial Survey (Pretoria: State Information Office, n.d. [ca 1951])

The magazine Panorama, for example, was published by the Department of Information of the apartheid government that functioned as a counterweight to the anti-apartheid magazine DRUM. In Panorama, portraits just like the one of ‘the Lady’ were published. DRUM, on the other hand, visualized the culture, dreams, and hopes of the Black community. This opens up the thought that the lady was portrayed to create a one-dimensional picture of the position of Coloured people within the country. ‘The Lady’ embodies a mixture of South African and European aspects as her tied-up hair and dress seem to be influenced by the British Victorian style. Her right shoulder is pointed forward and the fact that her face is not directed towards the camera fits the tradition of portraiture in England at that time. Her curly hair was straightened which was a distinctive characteristic for South African women to conform to European standards. The State Information Office therefore represented a ‘created’ type of Coloured that was sophisticated and urbanized while at the same time, the government and state continued to dehumanize and discriminate against people of colour.

This portrait was taken with an analogue camera on black and white film. However, black and white film does not represent the real colour of skin and therefore photographs cannot be used (as the State Information Office tried to do) to legitimize practices of segregation based on perceived differences in the colour of skin. This puts ‘the Lady’ in a grey area as the ‘Coloured’ skin is not white nor black on film, but a tone of grey. As I have two homes, the Netherlands and South Africa, I too sit in this grey area. The grey area is the space from which one does not take knowledge to be the truth but a place to see connections and where these come from.

I first assumed that the portrait was taken closer to the abolishment of apartheid as it did not fit within the colonial visual language. Through researching the State Information Office and figuring out what their goals were, traces of colonial representation and aesthetics came to light. This opened the door for questions about the portrayed lady and created space to dissolve the traces of how portraiture was used to segregate people. Coloured people’s existence embodies the coming together of people with different skin colours and backgrounds. This did not only happen through colonialism, slavery and apartheid, it happened through love and intimacy as well. Thus, within the grey space of the colonial and apartheid ‘contact zone’, complexities of lived experiences challenge presented ‘knowledge’ through such images used by the State Information Office. Here one has the freedom to ask questions without the need of arriving at answers.

I was born in Port Elizabeth (today Gqeberha) in 1993, the last year of apartheid. My grandparents were politically classified by the apartheid government as Coloureds and forcibly removed to the Coloured appointed neighbourhood of Salsoneville, the birthplace of my parents and myself. Even though our family immigrated to the Netherlands when I was six years old and I have spent most of my life here, apartheid is embedded in my identity. Coloured people’s identity was based on the fact that we were neither white nor black.

“Our Anthropological Golden Era”. Photograph by Maaike Kuiper, directed by Farren van Wyk, 2021, Gelderland (NL)

Within the ideology of segregation, we were difficult to identify as one singular ethnicity and it created in me a restlessness: having a mixed background was presented and reproduced as a problem. This mindset continues to persist, as in the Netherlands I am seen as South African and in South Africa I am seen as Dutch. If I am never really home, where do I belong while having this identity of absence?

I was given my first camera after graduation from high school and photography became my passion and obsession. Portraiture intrigued me immediately as it is a carrier of identity and within the medium of photography I can create my identity. I get to be who I want to be and step out of the apartheid politics that wanted to (and was used to) define me and my family. Although being categorized as Coloured, within Port Elizabeth we sometimes referred to ourselves as mixed, which seeps through into my photographic project as mixedness. I chose to study photography at the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht and continued with a Master's Degree in Visual Anthropology, all towards my life’s mission to decolonize portraiture.

We don’t know who the woman in the photograph was, nor how she lived her life. The name of the photographer is left out too. Also, did ‘the Lady’ have a say in how she would be portrayed and was she aware of the visual European influences bestowed into making her portrait? So: what does looking at this picture do for me and for us? Apartheid’s politics around social categorisation were one-dimensional, yet the life of ‘the Lady’, that of my family, and mine are so complex that it can never fit this one-dimensional categorization. This is what the grey space is about: the richness of everyone’s life.