A Scorched Earth

5 Oct 2016 - 15:00

Svea Jospehy's photograph depicting Beirut, Johannesburg (the Hostel) and Beirut, Lebanon (the Hotel)

Kosovo, Marikana, Beirut. All names of places that evoke images of war, violence and conflict. They are also the names of local informal settlements. University of Cape Town NRF rated researcher Svea Josephy recently concluded a month long photographic exhibition on South African spaces and their connections to sites of conflict around the world. In Scorched Earth: Satellite Cities, she uses colour photographs to explore what these connections mean to the people who inhabit the places that adopted these names. Humanities News spoke to her about the inspiration behind her recent work:

HN: The exhibition is concerned with the South African urban landscape specifically spaces named after sites of conflict and war. What drew you to this particular topic/ theme?

SJ: In my research I am interested in how space and identity are represented in post-apartheid South African photography, with particular reference to the politics of land. I began Satellite Cities as a continuation of a previous exhibition, Twin Town (2007). Twin Town was a similar project which looked at naming parallels between places, but in this case these names were connected through a colonial past. Twin Town looked specifically at places in South Africa which were named after places in Europe, and how these ‘copies’ of the ‘original’ place in Europe, carried a trace of that place through its name. In South Africa many of these diverse names are concentrated around urban centres (adding a bizarre twist to the apartheid era tourism slogan of “South Africa world in one country”): Barcelona now exists alongside Lusaka, Europe is near to Vietnam, Kosovo is down the road from Egoli.

When I was photographing Twin Town I became curious about how many Vietnams’ I found in South Africa.  I began to think about what it meant to name a settlement after a place so very associated with war, through media and film representations. Other places of associated with conflict, disaster and war began to emerge, such as Kuwait, Beirut and Iraq.

HN: Did your work involve encounters with the inhabitants of these areas? What this experience? 

SJ: I engage with people in whichever areas I photograph: these may be the librarians in the local libraries, people from community policing forums, or local museums, churches, fire stations, disaster management, taxi operators, city council, local councillors, solid waste management, people in temporary relocation areas (TRA’s) or street committees, or I employ guides from local areas. I ask them questions about how they believe the area got its name. I am not so much interested in the facts as the story. Thus, a small area in Mitchell’s Plein was known as Hyde Park by local residents and as Kayamandi by Solid Waste services. In talking with people who live in the area, I hear multiple and sometimes contradictory stories about how and area was named. 

Excavations, West Bank, Palestine (Jerrico), 2014, Light Jet (C print), and West Bank, Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa (River Bank), 2015, Light Jet (C print)

HN: What does the process of naming a residential site entail? At what point does the name of an informal settlement become official? 

SJ: The power of naming lies in claiming a connection to something which you may not own, but through naming a connection ensues. I believe naming has enormous power. When we name our children, for example, we name with intentionality. There is a connection to a relative, or a memory, a history.  So when people name places, this intentionality is present too. During colonial times people often named places after towns and districts they had left behind, and felt nostalgia for, but with scant regard for the names the places already had been give by indigenous populations. In the  apartheid era, places were most often named by officials. During this time the names were often euphemistic, such as Grassy Park and Ocean View or spoke to a colonial past, such as Delft, Stratford Glen and Lavender Hill. In a late and post apartheid context people were more often naming their own places. In the cases of informal settlements, people sometimes had the freedom to choose to name as they saw fit. These settlements were named after political figures, an emotion or feeling, named ironically, or named after current events. Sometimes these names were changed again by council or government as the same places were later settled with formal housing. Thus one place can be known by multiple names. So names are not stable. 

HN: In what ways does your research link to the current conversations about land ownership and land re-distribution in South Africa? I don’t mean directly rather, what does your work reveal about these issues?

SJ: About 15 years ago I began to think intently about the land and how it was named in South Africa. This was precipitated by the intricate political narratives surrounding the discourse of the land and the identity of those who inhabit it. Since the end of apartheid the history of the land has been revisited and questioned. People are claiming and reclaiming spaces previously denied to them. In claiming spaces, naming is very important.  I am alert to the fact that in South Africa, the naming and renaming of land is a profoundly political as well as emotional act – naming is, after all, inextricably bound up with claiming. It also has to be kept in mind that within the parameters of Fine Art, such an exploration as I propose aims at problematizing urban land issues rather than finding absolute solutions. My research project aims at contributing to the numerous theoretical debates surrounding land, urban construction, landscape and photography in South Africa.

Near Bosnia-Bosonia, South Africa (stop), 2014, Light Jet (C print), and Bosnia, Sarajevo (flats), Light Jet (C print)

HN: Informal settlements and townships are a legacy of the apartheid spatial engineering project. It is so interesting how the names of new sites differ from the names given to similarly new developments in the leafy suburbs? What does this say about the status of these communities within city metropoles?

SJ: Yes, I agree, the names in informal settlements are sometimes very different to the names given the suburban Tuscan themed housing developments, such as Blue Hills or Stone Pines. In some cases the one who names, is the one who holds authority, power and mandate to name, in other cases naming is playful and subversive – even tongue-in-cheek. In naming informal settlements an unmistakable tone of sarcasm or even witty wordplay asserts itself in the choice of Beverley Hills, Hyde Park, Sun City, Lapland, Europe, France, Bermuda Triangle, Malibu and Los Angeles. In these cases the act of naming foregrounds discrepancies in lifestyle, facilities, infrastructure and opportunity between environments.  

That being said my work is very much about the legacy of apartheid and clearly, when one visits previous war zones, and places named after war zones, the sense of dystopia can be overwhelming. Communities are clearly and overtly stating something about the conditions under which they live, which make these places the parallels of war zones. However, the story is not all bad. In many of the places I visited there was a deep sense of trauma in the landscape, but there was also reconstruction, redevelopment and hope. I should also mention, that my work not only focusses on informal settlelments and townships, but also on suburbs.


Svea Josephy is a senior lecturer of Fine Arts (photography) at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. For more information on this exhibition and other events, visit the Michaelis School of Fine Art website.