This is the first of three, maybe more, very different posts about old photographs. And memory. (All writers call in here at some point, I know; I have nothing original to add; but I’ve been doing a lot of gazing.)
First, one of those tucked-away little exhibitions in London of the sort that one stumbles into by accident: Usakos – Photographs beyond Ruins: The Old Location Albums 1920s to 1960s, in the basement of the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. Until 23 September.
Usakos is a small town in Namibia. According to Wikipedia, ‘Europeans’ (unspecified) bought the land around 1900, resold it to a railway company, and it is now ‘just a drive-through’, ‘riddled with poverty and alcohol abuse’. Ah, Wiki.
People live there. Among them, four particular women who collected things, those things including photographs taken (often by itinerant photographers) of parties, weddings, games, new babies. It was a thing that women did: keep, not throw away. Because the record was worth preserving, and handing down.
The other people who kept a record were the administrators of the apartheid regime of South Africa, who in the early 1960s decided that the blacks were living too close to the whites, so bulldozed the ‘old location’ and rehoused those who lived there in a basic, soulless new township in a separate location. The show at the Brunei gallery, chiefly drawn from the women’s collections, also includes the typewritten lists of the 700+ names of those who were compulsorily rehoused.
This is not a photography exhibition in the fine-art sense. The photographs are enlarged from their original size and I doubt the quality of their reproduction would win any prizes. That is not, of course, the point.
(Upstairs at the Brunei Gallery, running at the same time as the Usakos exhibition, are photographs of the extraordinary indigenous architecture of Yemen, a heritage that is currently being bombed to dust.)