Is it possible to envisage history as … determined by struggles occurring at the level of the visual? (Pinney 2004: 8)
A central task of Visual History at the University of the Western Cape has been to address the neglect of rich photographic archives in southern Africa, and explore the ‘struggles occurring at the level of the visual’. These have considerable implications for contemporary cultural and humanities debate. For one, the African research site presents particular problems and opportunities for the growing field of global photography studies. The visual turn has been taken up by many disciplines but often associates visual culture with the invention of technical media, setting Africa at the limit of modernity. The opportunity to think from this limit however holds the promise of re-theorising the humanities globally. This relates closely to the other important implication of the visual turn: the methodological and inter-disciplinary innovation it demands. Graduates of the UWC Visual History programme are producing original new work, challenging assumptions about the continent as a site of raw archives and belated or derivative modernities. They are also articulating new concepts and frameworks to rethink the dominant histories of vision from a strong research site in the south.
Visual History looks to larger processes outside the image itself, examining multiple histories, sciences and forms of knowledge over time, avoiding a narrow focus on the image in isolation. It acknowledges the way photography, as Pierre Bourdieu put it, is a ‘medium that mediates’ and flows into many other institutions and practices (such as art, the museum, science). It takes autonomous and unconventional approaches to images in relation to history, society and culture, drawing on the methodologies of different disciplines and varied media and replenishing them with new insights in their turn. Visual History has taken up difficult epistemological issues with regard to two particular issues. One is the problematic nature of ‘the source’ that is often taken for granted in historical studies. The other is the question of ‘the public’ in wider interdisciplinary debates, which also touches on civil engagement through institutions (such as the museum or the gallery) and practices around popular arts and social media.
Under the general rubric of ‘visual gateways’, the Chair in Visual History & Theory will focus on three themes in its first phase (2016-20). Firstly, the tendency to attribute binary values to state forms of visual documentation and studio portraiture in African history is put into question, by allowing for more refractory genealogies and what Elizabeth Edwards calls ‘photographic uncertainties.’ A second theme to be addressed is the modernist appropriation of documentary photography to forge emancipatory iconography for the new nation, especially in the anti-apartheid movement. This often brackets vision, violence and martyrdom together with lasting implications. Thirdly, the Chair will support research in the postcolonial African digital turn with its popular and dissident undertones especially in social media, that expresses yet another ambivalent manifestation of the ‘democratization of the image’.
While much research is concentrated on the growing global debate around photography, the Chair is not confined to that medium. Both documentary film and photography have moved towards genre redefinition and transformation in authorship with shifts in technology. In sum, the image is a site of intensified contest in Africa and elsewhere, and our futures will involve dramatically increased visual and other media literacies. This involves not only making use of such technologies, but promoting the critical skills so that the cultural and political magnitude of such changes can be grasped. It is about making but also breaking down meanings. The future lies in understanding and engaging with such ‘aesthetics of persuasion’.