They are kept stashed in wardrobes and chests while a few framed ones decorate room dividers. Some are arranged in albums as if to tell life stories and testimonies and to build identities. Family photographs are more than documentation of personal narratives; they become prized possessions, hearkening back to a certain event, a certain person, and a particular time. But they are also vehicles to a fantasy that allows for a momentary space to ‘perform’ ideals of ‘family-ness’, and become visual constructions of who we think we are and hope to be, yet at the same time being an erasure of reality.
During the course of this project, I initially began navigating my history through geographic mapping, attempting to trace where my family originated and how we ended up in these different spaces that we all now call home. I visited the different locations where my family lived in South Africa and found many old family photo albums. These personal archives varied, some well composed and others typical family snap-shots that were souvenirs of daily life. My grandmother, who is now my living archive, became a vital source of stories that accompanied these albums.
As I went through them I came to realise that the photographs were more than just a memory of moments or people who have passed on, or reassurance of an existence, but that they were a constructed life. Photographer and therapist Rosy Martin suggests that with regard to family albums, “It seems that in most families mothers are the archivists and guardians of family history, selecting what shall be remembered, what forgotten; constructing a mythology which validates their own ‘good mothering’” (Spence and Holland 1992: 1). This statement rang true with my own personal situation and my project diverted into different threads which explored the personal and collective histories of my family, these being the story of my mother, my grandfather, clan names and my own story.
Three years ago I lost my mother. She was my main link to our extended family and past since we all now live in separate homes. Her death sparked the need to trace my ancestral roots. I needed to locate myself in the wider family on some level and perhaps also to explore the possibility of keeping a connection with her. The idea of ‘the ghost’ started to emerge in my work. Like a presence that isn’t, of which Roland. Barthes speaks about in his book ‘Camera Lucida’ in which he explores “various photographs from his family album as he searches for a likeness that can begin to represent his feelings for and memory of his mother, who had recently died”. (Barthes, 1981, 96) Barthes describes his feelings as he was looking at the Winter Garden Photograph of his mother when she was five years old with her brother: “There I was in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it” (Barthes: 1993: 67). Similarly, in my journey I began looking for pieces of my mother in the house. I found many photos and clothes which had always been there but which I had ignored over the years. There she was smiling and posing in these clothes. Unlike Barthes though, I don’t know if I found what I was looking for in these ghostly traces. Perhaps unconsciously I was looking for answers about death and how to overcome it or perhaps forgive it for taking my mother so suddenly. My reconnection with her became a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories. I began inserting myself into her pictorial narrative by emulating these snaps of her from my family album. I would dress in the exact clothes that she was wearing in these twenty-year-old photographs and mimic the same poses. This was my way of marrying the two memories (mine and of my mother). I later developed digital photomontages where I juxtaposed old photographs of my mother retrieved from the family archives with photographs of a ‘present version of her’ - me, to reconstruct a new story and a commonality – she is me, I am her and there remains in this commonality so much difference, and so much distance in space and time. “Photographs present us, therefore, not just with the “thereness” of the object but its “having-been-there”, thus having the ability to present a past, a present and future in a single image. In this sense, Barthes argues that they are the modern ways in which we experience the reality of loss and ultimately death. I realised that I was scared that I was beginning to forget what my mother looked like, what she sounded like, and her defining gestures. The photomontages became a substitute for the paucity of memory, a forged identification and imagined conversation.
In these photomontages I try to reflect this emotive process – the absence left by my mother and yet her ever-present-ness in my young sister’s and my lives, as well as our wider family narrative. Her physical absence has not diminished her presence in our lives, and yet, far from this being simply consoling, it is a fact that her death still brings painful memories. As a process of mourning, the photograph can lead one into melancholia – a state of denial, depression, longing, disbelief. But perhaps like Barthes looking at the picture of his mother, we look at the person and see their life trajectory and the fact that no matter how alive they look, the photograph points at all our mortalities – that the essence of my mother that I identify in these photographs is, in fact, my essence, my constructions, my memories and fantasies of this person whom I knew in only one capacity: namely, mother. This project made me consider my mother outside of just ‘motherhood’ but as an individual, fashionable, determined woman, like the beautiful Black women seen in Drum magazine. I am not sure if I ‘know’ my mother any better, but this project seemed to connect three generations of women in my family: my grandmother (as the narrator of family memories), my mother as the object of study, me and my baby sister (who assisted in pressing the shutter on these restaged photographs) as receptors of this history and its makers as well.
While collecting stories on my mother from various family members, I began pulling out the threads of our larger family narrative. Heir-story traces my ancestral roots through stories that were narrated to me by my grandmother regarding spaces which were inhabited by my matrilineal family members. While the project documents my personal history and straddles generations of my mother’s family, it also resonates the history of South Africa, in that my family was uprooted and resettled because of apartheid laws and the amendment of land acts. These stories also reflect my family moving from place to place during the apartheid era and finding refuge in different spaces around the country, and then creating temporary homes in those spaces. This had a direct impact on the identity of my family as a whole which resulted in our surname changing from Khanye to Khanyi to Kganye, either as an attempt to identify with the different social and physical spaces where my family made homes or because of negligence in recording by law officials. As people didn’t often officially record their own names (or dates of birth), much of our history has been recorded incorrectly or simply remains unwritten.
This led me to exploring my family’s ‘izithakazelo/ direto’ (clan names or praise songs) - every Black surname has its own praise songs which give a stage to present family genealogy. Others are derived from the names of our grandfathers and siblings from the fathers’ side of the family but as my father was not part of my life, I inherited my mother’s surname Kganye. These songs become a passing on of the family’s oral tradition which connects one with their culture and history. Historically izithakazelo is something that has never been contained, and isn’t frozen; it is spoken and it is part of evolving vernacular culture. It isn’t written down, but rather passed down orally and each person says them differently. Genealogist, Kimberley Powell states, “Oral histories are stories told by living people about the past. Generally, these are stories of their own life and the life’s of the people around them. Often an oral history includes details and stories that exist nowhere other than in the individual’s mind.” The more I researched my family history, it became apparent that identity remains a space of extreme contradictions – in a way an experiment; it is a mixture of truth and fiction; a blending and clashing of histories and stories gathered, a malleable entity with the pretence of ‘fixedness’.
My grandfather represents the central patriarchal figure in the project. He passed away before I was born and we carry his surname (despite the spellings variations; my grandfather as Khanye, Grandmother as Khanyi and my surname as Kganye). He was the first person in the Khanye family to move from ‘di’plaasing’, which means ‘homelands’, in the Orange Free State to the city in Transvaal to find work because he didn’t want to be a farm labourer like the rest of the family. As apartheid was ending and the majority of the family moved from the homelands to seek work in Transvaal, they temporarily lived in his house in Johannesburg which was at the time one of several cities in the province of Transvaal. As a result everyone in the family has stories about my grandfather, and even though I was born in ‘his’ house I never got to know him except through stories passed down from family. So the project is also about being at the same place at different times and not meeting.
For this project I enact these stories of my grandfather to construct a visual narrative, in which we meet, through the use of life-size flat-mannequins of the characters related to me in various family stories. In these fictive narratives I am the only ‘real’ person, taking on the persona of my grandfather, dressed in a suit, a typical garment that he often appeared wearing in the family photographs. It is perhaps not surprising that with my father an active absence in my life, I sought to identify with another father-figure and directed this at my mother’s father, dressing in his clothes and ‘walking in his shoes’ (both over-sized).
This work also testifies to degrees of absences in that I did not know my grandfather any better than my own father, but yet feel the need to identify with him while ascribing a level of rejection to my own father. As a young woman enacting a patriarchal figure in a family, I address the shift in my role as a woman, having to be a provider and protector of the family since my mum’s death, by assuming the role of a man that most of the women in my family have had to take onbecause of the absent father figure. So we have had to learn to become these roles and by taking on the persona of my grandfather, I also perform a degree of masculinity associated with certain provisional roles. I write these scenes in my Sotho language which adds to the element of fantasy because it is a visualisation of how I imagine their memories, the stories that are shared with me which I carry with me and transmit so that I become an active participant in keeping these memories alive, as well as identifying with and contributing to them.
This photographic journey seems to be a deep response to loss and mourning – not just of different individuals, but of history, language and oral culture. ‘Her-story/Heir-story’ is about memory, fantasy, identity formation and performance, and provides a means for re-constructing my identity by reconnecting with family members (both alive and dead) and exposing a wider common history. Through the process of attempting to trace this history, I have discovered that identity cannot be made fully tangible just like the products of a camera; it is a site for the performance of dreams and the staging of narratives of contradiction and half-truths as well as those of erasure, denial and hidden truths. A family identity therefore becomes an orchestrated fiction and a collective invention. While these images record history, it is only a history imagined. I will choose which part of the fantasy to take with me and claim as my story.
1. ‘ Khanye’, ‘Khanyi’ or ‘Kganye’, the word in Sotho and Zulu means ‘light’
2. Powell, K. Oral History Step-by-Step, Why Oral History? http://genealogy.about.com/od/oral_history/ss/oral_history.htm. Accessed 20 May 2013.
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