Svea Josephy’s photographs in her recent project are immediately captivating. Situated in the polished white gallery space of the WITS Art Museum, diptychs hang evenly spaced and full of colour. Sometimes these colours are vibrant and contrasting and at other times they serve to fixate and highlight similarities in the images.
Titled Satellite Cities, Svea’s current exhibit forms part of a series of works that look at the naming of different places. More specifically, it compares and contrasts places that share the same name from different locations across the world. The works speak to colonial naming conventions, issues of war, poverty, power and beauty, and the apparent connections these places share.
We spoke to Svea about the idea behind the work, the power of naming, and where she sees the series going.
You’re a lecturer of fine arts photography and an artist. What else can you tell us about yourself?
I teach Fine Art (Photography) at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. I really enjoy teaching, and have fascinating and intelligent students who teach me a lot about photography and the world. I practice as a photographer and a writer about photography. In my writing I am interested in how space and identity are represented in post-apartheid South African photography, with particular reference to the politics of land.
Tell us a bit about your recent exhibition and how it came together.
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, the 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.
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 associated with war, through media and film representations. Other places associated with conflict, disaster and war began to emerge, such as Kuwait, Beirut and Iraq.
I began the photographing for Satellite Cities in 2010, and then in 2011 I had my son, which put travelling on hold for a few years. I resumed the project a couple of years later. I was editing and fine tuning the work when an opportunity came up to partner with the WITS City Institute (WCI). I had collaborated with the Director of this institute, Professor Noeleen Murray on a previous project. The WCI approached the Wits Art Museum (WAM) and together they co-hosted the exhibition.
Dystopias, utopias, privilege and oppression are all at once evident in your photographs. In embarking on a series like this, was it your intention to highlight such universal inequality or did it become more apparent as you went along?
My work is very much about the themes you mention above and clearly, when one visits previous war zones, and places named after war zones, the sense of dystopia can be overwhelming. However, the story is not all bad. In many of the places I visited there was a sense of trauma in the land, but there was also reconstruction, redevelopment, return and hope.
Colour is pivotal in your work. How did you go about using colour in this series?
My interest in colour has it’s roots in my interest in painting and my irritation with the often desaturated palette of South African photography. I think in this work, I give myself the freedom to play with colour. I wanted to allow the colour to speak. I sometimes faced challenges in trying to draw a colour relationship across two images, in which the light and the colour were sometimes very different.
For all the human elements present in your series, your photos rarely contain human bodies. What is the reason for this?
I have been influenced by David Goldbaltt’s South Africa: the Structure of things Then (1998). Like him, I think we can tell a lot about a place or country from the structures that are built on it. I think also as viewers we are interested in other humans, so if there is a body in the picture, or more specifically a face, our focus will immediately be drawn to this and we will see everything else in the picture in relation to that face. If the spaces are relatively quiet or empty it gives the viewer time and space to consider what else is being said, what the environment is revealing. There are actually often people in the pictures, just very small, but what they are doing or where they are placed is often pivotal to the pictures. Often I will wait a long time until a person appears in the right place.
And finally, I think my work speaks to two genres of photography, but really belongs to neither. My images are in a conversation with architectural photography, but are not architectural photographs. Equally they are in conversation with documentary photography, but are not documentary photographs. The work speaks to the conventions of these genres which often engage the human subject very specifically in relation to each genre.
What do you think is the power in naming, when those who are doing the naming are continually dispossessed of the land they are living on?
The power of naming lies in claiming a connection to something which you may not own, but through naming a connection ensues. Through naming, one claims something and it becomes ones own.
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. In my own case, bearing a rather usual name, there is a connection to a country. My name, Svea, which means Swede, is obviously connected to Sweden. I am named after a country. A country I have never been to, but my mother visited when she was a child.
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 had already been given 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 government as the same places were later settled with formal housing. Thus one place can be known by multiple names.
You’ve done Twin Town, Third World: Models Cities, and now Satellite Cities. Can we expect any further installations in the series?
I think I may extend this into a series called Scorched Earth, but I’m still figuring that out. Connected to my interests in the urban and in planning is an exhibition called Blueprint which is connected conceptually, but not visually. This exhibition I will hopefully show at the WITS Anthropology Museum, also in collaboration with the WITS City Institute, later this year or early next year. It is comprised of a series of cyanotypes and relief models. The concerns are similar but the visual language is not, so I’m not yet sure if it’s in this series.