Spring Queen: How do we archive an experience?

15 Apr 2019 - 16:30

Spring Queen: How do we archive an experience?

Sana Ginwalla, an Honours in Curatorship student, writes on the Spring Queen documentary and its surrounding archive. 


We often think of an archive as a building or the important documents that are stored inside of it. But what of lives and lived experiences? How do we archive an experience and begin to tell the stories of marginalised communities? Dr Siona O’Connell’s documentary Spring Queen is an example of how we can attempt to do this. 

Every year, garment workers from areas in the Cape Flats come together to represent their factories in the Spring Queen pageant. Outfits for the show are designed using textiles and machines from the participants' respective factories. The majority of the employees at these factories are coloured females and look forward to representing their factory with pride each year. The rise of racial violence and anti-apartheid movements prompted the emergence of this event in 1978. It came about as a response to the growing tensions in the workplace and hoped to alleviate them. The pageant, an event that is a world away from the day to day lives that the employees live, was decided upon as a way to refocus energy and boost morale. 

The story of Spring Queen is told in several forms: a film, an online archive and an exhibition that took place when the project was launched. The wide variety of platforms and representations are important as stories from marginalised communities are often absent in state archives. As O’Connell says, in Spring Queen: The Staging of the Glittering Proletariat (the catalogue text that accompanies the exhibition) “the story of Spring Queen allows us an opportunity to unearth and articulate those untold stories of lives, bodies and spaces on the periphery”, and that “it is crucial as an archive through which we can start thinking about how we may choose to now live and what histories we want to write.” Not only does Spring Queen differ from what is usually seen in the archive, the mode in which it has been represented is also unusual. By using open platforms such as a film and a website, the content becomes easily accessible to the general public, expanding the reach of these otherwise untold narratives. This contrasts greatly from orthodox ideas of an archive where access is riddled with restrictions and bureaucracy, with material stored away in back rooms never to be seen again.

The Spring Queen documentary therefore challenges our understanding of the archive and how it operates in conventional ways. Understanding the Spring Queen pageant through a film allows us to think of the archive “as fluid, opaque and illusive, constantly shifting, with multiple archivists and entry points” (O’Connell, 2012). The voice of the participants is heard, their concerns and qualms are seen, their joy and disappointed is shown and the spirit of Spring Queen is felt. The viewer becomes acquainted with the participants, employees and managers of each factory. With the underlying journey of the pageant moving the viewer through the process from preparation to rehearsals, viewers have a glimpse of the dedication and work that goes into the final event where participants line up one by one on stage, in taffeta and chiffon dresses. The documentary attempts to be as neutral as possible, seemingly telling the story as it is. However, one must be aware that this form of archiving also grants power to those filming and communicating these stories visually. Viewers should be conscious of the aspects that were not filmed or the way in which the footage has been edited. The documentary has been manipulated to have a certain tone, focusing on the pageant itself. The film for example could easily be edited to focus on the garments, or the union, or even the men who own the factories. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the narrative is balanced due to the photographic archive that is available on the Sequins, Self and Struggle website which conforms to conventional ideas of an archive, but with unconventional and otherwise untold content.

The website is an open platform where contributions are encouraged, allowing for the archive to constantly be added to, analysed, criticised and therefore improved. The availability, accessibility and storage of these images online also allows us to address this pageant as valid, important and essential in our understanding of post-apartheid South Africa. Unlike the documentary it is not informed by any voice-overs but simply acts as a repository for photographs and newspaper clippings. The out-of-focus disposable camera images of previous Spring Queens, collected from personal archives, give viewers a vivid and personal understanding of the women involved, how the pageant changed over the years, and the ways in which it was advertised in newspapers.

The addition of newspaper clippings to this archive suggests that the recognition of these women has always been a large part of the Spring Queen pageant. The women are from “inhospitable” areas such as Manenberg, Hanover Park and Atlantis, and work for R350 a week in clothing factories, where they are unlikely to be able to afford the clothes they make, in an industry threatened by foreign imports. Being a garment worker has become a defining part of their identity and fellow employees become family, united through this. The Spring Queen pageant becomes a platform whereby participants have something to show for their work and a moment in which to shine on stage wearing the clothes made in their factories. Mothers wish and dream for their daughters to be crowned Spring Queen - reminding us of the oppression of the system that not only restricts their financial abilities, but the stretch of their imaginations too. Being crowned with a plastic tiara and a shimmering ball gown can hardly redeem all the sacrifices, dedication and loyalty paid to their workplace over the years but, perhaps, gives these women a moment on the runway in which to say, as O'Connell puts it, "I am here. This is me. I am not what you say I should be."

Further reading: O'Connell, S. 2013. Spring Queen: the staging of the glittering proletariat. Cape Town, South Africa: Centre for Curating the Archive.

Words by Sana Ginwalla.

Photos taken from the online archive Sequins, Self and Struggle. Available: http://sequins-self-and-struggle.com/

Top photo: Article from the 1980 Spring Queen pageant.

Bottom photo: The Staging of the Glittering Proletariat, exhibition opening, Bertram House