Edith Mac Quene is, among other things, a matriarch, a style icon, an eclectic collector, an ardent lover of the Lord. She is also filmmaker/photographer Jabu Nadia Newman’s maternal grandmother, and the subject of her solo show at Orms Cape Town School of Photography.
The show’s title, ‘Mokwena Macquena Mac Quene’ relates to the history of Edith Mac Quene’s name, which involves the various name changes and bureaucratic measures her family took in order to be classified as coloured rather than black, namely so that they could keep their family home in the suburb of Retreat. Newman says her intention for this show was to question anti-blackness in coloured identity, starting with her family. The images of Mac Quene in her domestic space register an eighty-year history of contentions and contradictions across cultural and racial lines. In one image, an oil painting of a European harbour hangs opposite a tapestry depicting an unplaceable African landscape, complete with faceless black children dancing to drums. In the same photo, a cabinet exhibits a wooden giraffe carving, a Victorian-style, cherub-clad porcelain urn, souvenirs from New Zealand and Bangkok, a series of kitschy religious plates. This creolised aesthetic calls into question the way identity is articulated in material culture, often defying categorisation. It also reveals the problems Newman wants to reckon with: what are the politics of using a curio African doll as a doorstop, in a home which, at least at one point, was hell-bent on coloured assimilation?
I like the way Newman characterises her grandmother’s curatorial choices as ‘a bit naïve.’ It’s this simultaneous compassion and critical edge that has always kept me engaged in Newman’s characters. Compared to her other projects – which include, The Foxy Five, a mini-series on a gang of intersectional feminists, and Queenie, a short film about rediscovering queer family – these pieces are more documentary in nature. As is the case with other art forms, documentary photography especially tends to raise issues of representation. Histories of colonial photography prove that representing people violently can have long-lasting damages on the historical archive as well as the collective psyche. When I asked Newman how she wanted to represent her grandmother, she told me how important it was to capture her in different roles, both posed and candid. For me, it was nice to walk into a photography exhibition and see the same face over and over again. Here she is as the pastor’s wife, arms raised to jazzy gospel music at her local church. Here she is posed regally beneath family portraits and her framed university degree, which she decided to complete upon taking her oldest daughter in for registration. Though I don’t claim to know her in her entirety, this show made Edith Mac Quene come alive for me, a welcome change from the anonymous faces that permeate visual culture.
Indeed, there is something human about Newman’s work. Perhaps it’s the many ways in which she has turned the exhibition space into a temporary home, inviting the viewer inside. Edith Mac Quene’s dining room wall is replicated full-scale in the gallery; even though I can see the peeling edges of its wheatpaste postage, I am struck by the same jitters I used to get when surrounded by my own grandmother’s fragile trinkets. A photography studio has been converted into a viewing room/lounge, decorated with objects from Mac Quene’s home – floral chairs, a candelabra, homemade throws and doilies. A four-channel video installation introduces us to her properly. We hear her life stories in her own words: how her parents walked from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, or how the apartheid government came to remove non-coloured families from Retreat by the busload.
Though the deeply personal aspects of this show are what made it, for me, at once so touching, and so complex, inviting strangers into one’s private sphere is not an easy task. Newman certainly runs the risk of laying bare her grandmother’s world to a world of discourse which is all-too-often reductive.
But Newman is an expert of boundaries. Two videos follow Newman as she walks through the house, reminding us that we are seeing the world through her eyes. Newman acts as a prism, the way the camera lens acts as a prism, between subject and viewer. I think that the pleasure of this show is that Newman has already done the hard work for us: she has witnessed another person authentically, with all the love and confusion wrapped up in that relationship. Thus, the viewer gets to assume the perspective of a clever, caring photographer without having to exercise their own compassion. My only worry is that this could be a dangerous arrangement, wherein a privileged class of predominantly white art goers, once again, reap the benefits of a woman of colour’s labour.
Then again, too often the assumption is made that artists create their work for the art world. It’s almost a given that exhibitions belong to collectors, gallerists, and reviewers. But for this show, Newman insists that work made about her family is necessarily for her family. Edith Mac Quene as well as several cousins and church members were present for the opening event, refreshingly outnumbering the average gallery-goers. Newman says that she wants to explore racism in the coloured community, starting with her family. For me, this reads as a major achievement for Newman’s career. If I could pick a thematic thread that runs through Newman’s creative work, I would say it’s about communities of radical love. Rather than reimagining what those communities look like in fiction, Newman is actively creating them in her home. For us, we must bear witness to this journey of self-discovery the way any houseguest would: with respect.