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SDC Visual Arts

Usakos — Photographs Beyond Ruins travels to Maputo

Exhibition Opening: July 6 2017, 6pm

Exhibition Closure: August 4 2017

Portuguese Cultural Centre in Maputo (Centro Cultural Português em Maputo), Av. Julius Nyerere, 720, Maputo, Mozambique

The exhibition Usakos – Photographs Beyond, having travelled to venues in South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, the United States and France, now finds its way to Maputo where it will be hosted by the Portuguese Cultural Centre in Maputo (Centro Cultural Português de Maputo), alongside a Workshop on Visual History exploring the role of photography in the recording and telling of social history. The Johannesburg office of Pro Helvetia has been involved since 2014 in supporting the development and presentation of this collaboration which has involved the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel, the District Six Museum in Cape Town, the University of Nambia in Windhoek and the municipality of Usakos (Namibia) since 2014.

About the Project

In the early 20th century, the small town of Usakos in central Namibia went through major economic and social changes. The town became an important economic centre, related to the exploitation of the Otavi Mines and the booming railway system in Namibia. In the 1960s, the centre of the Namibian railways shifted to Windhoek, which triggered a new wave of transformations in the area. The city went through steady economic decline as workers moved gradually southwards. This process overlapped with the local experience of increasing segregation with the imposition of apartheid laws enforced by South Africa. In particular from the mid-1950s, under South African colonial administration Usakos experienced a radical reorganization of space, including forced removals and the relocation of residents to townships, where they were segregated along ethnic lines.

The exhibition Usakos – Photographs Beyond Ruins sheds light on the social history of the town, as it went through major economic, social, and political challenges. It is composed by photographs collected from, and curated by, four senior women who lived in the old location before the wave of forced removals: Cecilie //Geises, Wilhelmine Katjimune, Gisela Pieters und Olga //Garoës. The value and uniqueness of this collection lies in its constitution as an alternative archive, that allows the public to see a different reality then that commonly found in official or state-produced forms of representation. While the archives of the apartheid era tend to reproduce the boundaries between “whites” and “natives” as undifferentiated groups, this exhibition explores the trajectories and social lives of Usakos’ residents in their individuality, as human beings and historical actors in their own right. Another unique quality of this collection is that it combines photographs produced and curated by ordinary people, which again emphasizes their historical agency in living under and facing the South African rule of Namibia (then South West Africa).

By traveling to Maputo, the Usakos exhibition will open a debate between Namibia and Mozambique, while also raising important questions about the past, present and future of photography as an artistic field in these contexts. In doing so, this project displaces South Africa as the academic and artistic “centre” of the region, for it is precisely by taking the exhibition to the “periphery” that the full potential of Usakos as a curatorial and critical project can be achieved. One the one hand, the exhibition looks back to the social history of spatial segregation in Namibia from the point of view of those placed at the margins of the apartheid state (and those displaced by it). On the other, Mozambique, as another “margin” of South Africa, can profit greatly by engaging this photographic archive. As two “poles apart” in the region, there has been very little dialogue between Namibia and Mozambique, in the artistic and in the academic fields alike. In Maputo, Usakos will make important aspects of Namibian history known to the Mozambican public, but it will also highlight the connections between these two countries, in their past and present practices of visual representation.


Debating photography and archives in Mozambique is the more important considering that this country enjoys a strong tradition in photojournalism, which includes iconic figures such as Ricardo Rangel and Kon Nam. While the work of these two photographers has been celebrated in beautifully edited publications, we know relatively less about the rich visual landscape existing in Mozambican public and private archives. By bringing Usakos to Maputo this project opens up a space of dialogue and intends to encourage future work on photographic archives in both the academic and the artistic fields. For this reason, the opening of the exhibition is articulated to a Workshop on Visual History entitled “Photography and Memory Beyond Ruins.” This event will bring photographers, scholars and the public at large in conversation about methods, approaches and practices relating to photography, aesthetics and archives in Mozambique. It will also serve as an opportunity to revisit the photographic landscape in the country, from colonial times to the liberation struggle until our contemporary moment.

This is an important move particularly considering that the social sciences in general and history in particular have been mostly “disciplines of words” – to paraphrase the Anthropologist Margaret Mead. Among historians, relatively few make engage photographs beyond their documentary function. This Workshop, on the other hand, will complicate the role of images as historical documents by looking also at their memorialist role, that is, as expressions of individual lives and collective experiences. As various of the papers presented during this event will show, images of the past, organized and indexed in archives, are not merely evocative figures or documental traces of a long-gone past that one intends to recover. Rather, historical photographs are subjected to reappropriation and to the renegotiation of their meaning at the hands of historians, artists and curators. Surely, they also help us to better understand the complex play of continuity and rupture between the past and the present, that is, between colonialism, liberation, and postcolonial times. The Workshop on Visual History, to take place on July 7 at the Portuguese Cultural Centre in Maputo, will bring scholars, photographers and practitioners from Namibia, Mozambique and other locations into dialogue and conversation on these critical issues, while reflecting on the lessons Usakos as a curatorial, artistic and academic project can offer to other contexts in the region.

For more information about the project in Portuguese, go here: https://oficinadehistoriavisual.wordpress.com/usakos/