On Thursday the 14th of May The Mirror in the Ground – an exhibition curated by Siona O’Connell in conjunction with the launch of Nick Shepherd’s book The Mirror in the ground: Archeology, Photography and the making of a disciplinary archive — opened at the Centre for African Studies Gallery (UCT Upper Campus). The exhibition will run until the 12th of June.
The exhibition begins with a question: What does it mean to decolonize disciplinary knowledges? Archaeology and photography share parallel histories in southern Africa. Advances in camera technology in the late-nineteenth century coincided with a growing interest in the material evidence of “prehistory”. Cameras were carried into the field to document sites and sediments, record finds, capture mise-en-scènes, and record images of camp life. The optical empiricism of the period meant that the camera had the status of a “truth apparatus”, valued alike by science and the modernising state. At the same time, unintended contents leaked into the frame to challenge conventional accounts of disciplinary histories and processes.
The photographs in this exhibition come from the archive of the South African archaeologist AJH “John” Goodwin (1900-1959). They speak of many things. They speak of an archaeological aesthetic, and the role of the visual imagination in processes of disciplinary formation. They speak of settler science, and of a passionate engagement with the landscapes of the past. They also speak of the entanglement of archaeology with forms of racial science, manifested as a white gaze on black bodies. In the case of archaeology, these are the bodies of both the living and the dead. They speak of the intimacy of the grave, and of the violence of the act of exhumation. More generally, they speak of absent presences, of the hauntedness of the archive, and of projection and “doubling”. John Goodwin is doubled by his unacknowledged black co-worker, Adam Windwaai (Adam Blowing-in-the-Wind). Largely absent from the written archive, Adam Windwaai’s presence in the photographic archive takes the form of a challenge and a reproach. In the directness of his gaze lies the genesis of a counter-project: an archaeology after archaeology.
In the book that forms the source for this exhibition, The Mirror in the Ground: Archaeology, Photography and the Making of a Disciplinary Archive (Centre for Curating the Archive and Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2015), Nick Shepherd writes that the coloniality of archaeology is manifested as a form of deep inscription in the discipline. Forms of disciplinary entitlement and the violence of “ways of knowing” constitute a thread that links the past to the present. The dead hunter/gatherers of Peers Cave and Oakhurst Cave find their counterparts in the forcibly removed dead of Prestwich Street, and the archive becomes a mirror in which we encounter our contemporary selves.