2012 - Ongoing
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.
Six 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’: “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”.
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. 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. 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.
My grandfather represents the central patriarchal figure in the project. He passed away before I was born and we carry his surname. He was the first person in the Khanye family to move from ‘di’plaasing’, which means ‘homelands’ to the city 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. As a result, everyone in the family has stories about my grandfather. The project is also about being at the same place at different times and not meeting.
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). 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,
This photographic journey seems to be a deep response to loss and mourning – not just of family, but of history, language and oral culture. 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.