Exhibition and Conference

Photographs beyond Ruins: The Usakos old location albums, 1920s-1960s

The Wits City Institute partnered with the University of Namibia, the Museums Association of Namibia, and the Municipality of Usakos to present Photographs beyond Ruins as part of the international conference ‘Circulations’: the (un)making of Southern Africa beyond and across borders.

4 November – 3 December 2016 / ROOM Gallery & Projects, New Doornfontein, Johannesburg

The Wits City Institute was honoured to host the Johannesburg exhibition of the  Photographs beyond Ruins exhibition, which emerged from a collaboration between historians Giorgio Miescher (University of Basel) and Lorena Rizzo (University of Bielefeld and Harvard University), curator Tina Smith (District Six Museum, Cape Town), and Cape Town photographer Paul Grendon, in cooperation with the University of Namibia, the Museums Association of Namibia, and the Municipality of Usakos. It was presented in partnership with the Wits City Institute as part of the international conference ‘Circulations’: the (un)making of Southern Africa beyond and across borders.

Assoicated conference Circulations: The 9un)making of Southern Africa beyond and across borders 

The Photographs Beyond Ruins: The Usakos old location albums, 1920s-1960s exhibition presented a selection of photographic prints and contextual information, designed around three private photographic collections kept by four women (Cecilie Geises, Wilhelmine Katjimune, Gisela Pieters and Olga Garoes) in a central Namibian town called Usakos.

The history of Usakos is linked to the development of the South African railway system in Namibia, which brought remarkable prosperity to the town in the 1940s and 1950s, but caused a socio-economic decline in the early 1960s. At that time, the inhabitants of Usakos were subjected to forced removals based on racial segregation and apartheid urban planning, and relocated on the town’s outskirts.

Today, Usakos is a town marked by economic stagnation and many social challenges. The photographic collections are part of a diverse culture of remembering, memory work, and community building. These images constitute personal albums, subjective narratives of and aesthetic interventions in the course of a history that left people out of sight/site; a history that denied them visibility and voice as residents, citizens, and human beings. The photographs cover a wide range of genres, subjects and locations, and include portraits of family members, images of public spaces, of leisure activities, and street-views. African itinerant photographers and residents of the old location, whose work was considered to be part of an inclusive, cosmopolitan notion of community and African cultural production, took most of the pictures. The social, cultural and aesthetic variety of life in the ‘old location’ (‘ou lokasie’) informs the ways in which people relate to these photographs today: with pride and a deep sense of nostalgia and loss. Forced removals and decades of economic hardship and political tutelage ruined a thriving community, and the photographs have become distant reflections on a landscape meanwhile marked by decay and dislocation.

The exhibition reflects on the remaining members of the community and the relics of the past with which they live. It is the reflection of the past in the present that informs Paul Grendon’s photographs, in which Usakos landscapes emerge as a palimpsest of scar tissue: a place and space of colonial ruination, interwoven with histories and memories, silences and voices, absences and presences of those who lived and continue to make a living there. These photographs enter into a visual dialogue with the Usakos old location albums and some of them are integrated into the exhibition.

In the collation and presentation of content, the curators have not removed any originals from the collections, which were used to source them; all original photographs continue to be in the possession of the four women and are kept in their homes.

The exhibition is on permanent display in the Usakos Museum but also travels in southern Africa as well as overseas.The exhibition was made possible with the support of the Wits City Institute, University of the Witwatersrand; the Carl Schlettwein Stiftung; the District Six Museum; the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft, Basel; the Museums Association of Namibia; the Stiftung Mercator Schweiz; the Swiss Arts Council & Pro Helvetia; the University of Namibia; the USAKOS Museum; the Centre for African Studies, Basel; ROOM Gallery & Projects.