Cedric Nunn, Unsettled: One Hundred Years War of Resistance by Xhosa Against Boer and British @David Krut Projects

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 black and white photographs (drawn from a complete set of 61 images), framed in black and unmatted, and hung in the main gallery space, the side alcove, and the office area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, each sized 16×20 and available in editions of 9. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Archipelago Books (here) and is available from the gallery for $36. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At first glance, Cedric Nunn’s recent landscape photographs from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa are decidedly underwhelming. Very little of what they document could be called beautiful or even memorable. Dusty villages and townships, quiet churches and mission stations, rivers and fertile farmland, and a sprinkling of forgotten monuments are their chosen subjects, and the vistas and views are captured in middle range black and white and with a significant measure of understated reserve. Even when inspected closely, Nunn’s deadpan photographs feel silent and empty.

The reason for this muted character is that what they really show us is an absence. From a historical point of view, much of what we know of Africa is viewed through the prism of active colonialism; the major events that populate most history books mark the comings and goings of various European invaders and occupiers, telling their biased stories of battles fought with natives, settlements scratched out from inhospitable lands, and cities and governments erected where none had apparently been before, taking full advantage of mining reserves, shipping lanes, and other strategic resources. As the old saying goes, the victors write the history, and in the case of the Eastern Cape, that history is dominated by Boer and British interests and vantage points.

What Cedric Nunn has set out to do is to write an alternate history, and to do it with photographs. Almost by definition, this is nearly an impossible task. Not only has most all of the evidence of the ferocious Xhosa resistance to roughly 100 years of frontier incursions by various colonists been almost entirely erased, Nunn’s task is in essence an inversion – to witness something that has disappeared and is now largely invisible. Violence, conquest, burials, battles (both wins and losses), killings, forced removals, occupations, displacements – they’ve all been consciously (and deliberately) forgotten, at least on the surface of things. His point is that these wounds still simmer below, where the denial of that history festers and distorts.

When we look again at Nunn’s unassuming landscapes, what we now see are the tiny historically significant fragments he has painstakingly rediscovered, traces of the Xhosa narrative that haunt the land like ethereal ghosts. There’s Cove Rock, where the warrior prophet Makana declared he would summon Xhosa ancestors from the sea to drive the whites away. There are monuments commemorating the burial place of the prophet Ngqika (behind iron fencing), the graveyard where Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was laid to rest, and the arcing white concrete towers of Ntaba kaNdoda, a site of repeated battles. There are ruins of countless garrisons and forts, as well as European-style churches and missions that provided sanctuary to settlers. And there are the rich farmlands near the Inxuba River (the Great Fish River) that proved so enticing to land hungry foreigners.

Given there is so little visible substance in Nunn’s pictures, the whole project becomes an exercise in conscious reimagination. Can we see the hints of the warrior chiefs in the young boy standing proudly with his soccer ball? From the three kids standing in the scrub, can we imagine the Xhosa forces assembled in 1819 on the hill overlooking what is now Germantown, ready to attack the garrison? From the street view of modern day Peddie, can we look back and visualize the same place as a British frontier outpost? It takes some real effort to see the other side of every contested piece of land, and to understand that every cricket pitch and jailhouse was once something else of significance to the Xhosa, the traces of which have now been expunged. But it’s that deliberate recalibration of memory that Nunn is after.

Nunn’s photographs aren’t easy to engage with, especially since they offer so little to grab onto. But I found myself drawn into their thinking process, and soon I started to see the nuances of the land with some of the clarity that Nunn intended. Together, his photographs represent a kind of anti-history, a figure and ground visual where we oscillate back and forth between the accepted colonial storyline and its inverted opposite. For peoples the world over who have had their land forcibly taken from them, that land retains its power over their identity, regardless of the prevailing government or ideology. Nunn’s tireless investigations of the Eastern Cape are an important effort to rebalance the scales in favor of the marginalized Xhosa, and give those who have been dispossessed a renewed sense of their own narrative.

Collector’s POV: The prints on view in this show are priced at $2050 each. Nunn’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Cedric Nunn, David Krut Projects, Archipelago Books

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