Roelof van Wyk’s Jong Afrikaner: A Self-Portrait is a published series of portraits of urbanised, creative and engaged Afrikaners who present a challenge to preconceived ideas about Afrikaner identity and values. An exhibition of the photographs opens in Cape Town this month and coincides with the launch of the book Jong Afrikaner: A Self-Portrait, published by Fourthwall Books, with text by Stephanus Muller (translated into English and Dutch by Michiel Heyns and Riet de Jong).
As part of our Young South Africa series, we caught up with Roelof to ask him about this body of work.
Between 10and5: What sparked the idea for the Jong Afrikaner series?
Roelof van Wyk: It was time to show the world another perspective, to open a window, to speak up for ourselves; Young Afrikaners who have found their own voice after Apartheid. Not shackled by our shared history, not held back by personal or collective guilt or by feelings of being disenfranchised victims of the new political dispensation.
These are Young Afrikaners who are exploring what it means to be Africans, to be white Africans, born in, and belonging to, Africa, sometimes through 12 generations of births and burials. This is a contested identity in a racialised and politicised world; so it’s time to raise your hand and speak up and say: “I am an African.”
10and5: The book is titled Jong Afrikaner: A Self-Portrait, what does it say about you?
Roelof: Just about everything if you read between the lines. The people I choose and how or why I relate to them, and what I believe they say about me.
However, it is also a self-portrait of the group of individuals, and then of a certain fragment of the Afrikaners themselves. I don’t think for a minute this group represents all Afrikaners, but I do believe they are representative of Afrikaners who are becoming engaged with what it means to be African, through the lens of being an Afrikaner; not victims, not guilty, not irrelevant, not European, not emigrating, not hating.
10and5: If people take one thing away from this body of work, what do you hope it will be?
Roelof: To be moved enough by each of the individual’s stories and for a moment evaluate their own lives, and perhaps action a small change for the good, and the power to speak up for themselves.
10and5: How did you go about choosing your subjects?
Roelof: It’s always easiest to photograph your own friends. A sense of trust already exists between you which makes the resulting images emotional, vulnerable, direct and even confrontational if you look at them as a stranger. This became my general way of working. Also, some were friends of friends, brothers and sisters, one or two I met at a drunken party or a music festival or art exhibition and a few individuals came through more intellectual platforms like an online discussion forum on the Afrikaans language.
10and5: What were your reasons for the styling – no clothing, accessories or make-up, plain black background?
Roelof: The aesthetic was developed over a few months of photographing. The black background actually happened when I took some social photos at a friend’s wedding on a Free State farm against the most black night sky you can imagine. It’s therefore important to understand that the background is space and not a flat wall; you need to look through it into history and into the endless landscapes of Africa. This dramatic intervention pointed by sheer default to the Dutch Masters kind of dramatic painting of Vermeer and Rembrandt; hyper realistic, heavy painterly colour against dark, heavy contexts.
This referenced our shared European genetic history but in stripping the subjects from their material it not only left them vulnerable and exposed, but also signified their openness to be written on, to write new (hi) stories. At the same time I was researching early German Ethnographic photography practiced by Gustav Fritsch and Alfred Duggan-Cronin, and saw a certain resonance and location between their images of the African tribes, and the Afrikaner (tribe). This not only sharpened my eye towards form and shape but also made me more sensitive to the issue of representation.
10and5: Will this be an ongoing project for you?
Roelof: I think this would probably be a life occupation in some form or another. This project has informed and influenced not only how I think about art but also about my own purpose and my life.
10and5: Are there other statements or stories you’d like to address through a photo series?
Roelof: Absolutely. As you can see the project only has people who look like me, therefore a self-portrait. So for the moment it focuses on a specific group of white people who are breaking down the traditional idea of Afrikaner, as well as that untouchable monolith WHITENESS itself with their actions. The new portrait project that I started working on is again tracing my own personal history but through my surname: van Wyk. (In 1686 the progenitor Roelof Adriaensz van Wyk, arrived in Cape Town, the rest is kind of history.)
I will be photographing people with the surname van Wyk, creating a Family Album. This now allows me entry into photographing people who do NOT look like me, not white, not traditionally Afrikaner. I will thus create a van Wyk Map that speaks about our history of love and violence, owned and ownership, power relations, categories and classification, and everything in between.
10and5: What would you like the world to know about Young South Africa?
Roelof: They are young, gifted and black and white and coloured. Committed, creative, clever, and cool. They are present in the here and now. And each one has marked their place with an X.
64 Wale Street , Cape Town
28 June 2012 – runs till 26 July 2012