PDN Photo of the Day

A Tour of Whiteness

In the center of Cape Town, South Africa, the towering trees and flowering hedges of the Company’s Garden interrupt the city’s concrete blocks. Through the end of January 2020, visitors to this urban oasis will have the opportunity to see the public art installation of a photo project by Sydelle Willow Smith that explores the histories and privileges of white South Africans. Smith, who lives two blocks from the garden, leads group tours of the exhibition, titled “Un/Settled.” Earlier this week, in dappled sunlight, Smith guided me through the installation. What follows is a transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity, of her tour. 

“Un/Settled” is about white South Africans and how we came to be South African. I’ve been working on the project for the last five years, interviewing as many white South Africans as possible across age, gender and background. I ask them what they think about apartheid, what they think about the New South Africa, and if they feel a need for atonement. The public exhibition is meant to spark further conversation about these complex issues, and around whiteness, white fragility and white privilege.

The Company’s Garden is one of the more integrated public areas of Cape Town, which is a vastly divided city. The garden’s history is another reason I wanted to install the exhibit here. It was founded in the 1600s by Jan Van Riebeeck’s Dutch East India Company ships as a place to grow vegetables and fruit for the sailors so they wouldn’t get scurvy. Which makes it part of one of the first white settlements in Cape Town.

The project has around 100 photos in the bigger edit and maybe 40 interviews, but for this iteration I needed to be quite selective, based on budget for printing and also audience attention span. When you put work out in a public space like this you really have to think about how people are going to engage with it. Not everyone is going to read the full text next to the quote, which is why I chose to have a big selection of the quote highlighted to entice people to stop and read the longer extract. I tried to capture as many different viewpoints as possible in the edit for the public installation. You have some extreme right wing viewpoints, you have some nostalgic explorer types who think of themselves as [explorer David] Livingston kind of characters, you have old retirees whose husbands were policemen in the apartheid government, and you have people who used to be in the End Conscription Campaign, working for the ANC underground in England.

I also wanted to highlight that the experience of being a white South African is not a singular thing, but the benefits of being white in this country are experienced across the board. It’s such a complex topic, and I’ll be a white South African until the day I die. It’s a project I plan to come back to over the years. Maybe I’ll take five years and then come back in 15 years, 20 years as the country changes and the conversations evolve.

This man, Naas Delport (gallery slide 1), was somebody I met in a caravan park in northern KwaZulu-Natal. He used to be in the special forces of the apartheid military, which would have been heavily involved in torturing ANC activists and MK soldiers. He didn’t want to talk about that in the interview. He looked like this hippie with beads and long hair and the New South African flag was flying proudly in his caravan unit. But under the surface, there’s also this pain and trauma and racist tension from the history of the country. His quote stops people in their tracks. He says, “Shaka actually said the whites are going to come over the sea and take your country. It is a fact. It happened.” He’s referring to King Shaka of the Zulus. What Naas is saying is young Black South Africans must get over apartheid, it was 25 years ago and they have the same opportunities he had when he was a young man. It’s a lack of understanding the impact of history and how racialized structures affect generations. I want to show the problem of thinking that apartheid is just done and you must get over it. There’s still so much work to be done.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Eliza (gallery slide 3). I find her viewpoints on whiteness refreshing. She says if she were to leave South Africa, like so many people going to Australia or America, she would just have to face the same inherited history of whiteness and white privilege. There’s nowhere she can run away to that isn’t going to come with the benefits of being white. I think that’s a powerful summing up of the underlying issues of whiteness having such space in the world in terms of representation, knowledge production and political power. Lots of people struggle with the idea of white privilege. They say, My father worked hard and I worked hard, but they don’t understand the way that “white” has been portrayed as civilized and everything else as uncivilized in the colonial and even postcolonial context. The idea of the developed world versus the developing world, what is progress, what is development, all of these big concepts that shape world views stem largely from a white view of what is good. That’s what Eliza really pinpoints beautifully. We need to decolonize all of that kind of thinking. We need to break it down and shake it up because that old view is detrimental and holds us back and keeps white men in power.

Sydelle Willow Smith speaking to Sarah Stacke

By Sydelle Willow Smith
Company’s Garden, Cape Town, South Africa
Through January 2020

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