Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

Incompleteness, or compositeness? The potential of Francis Nyamjoh’s vocabulary of mobility and conviviality in the cultural translation of sartorial display in photographs from colonial South Africa.

Auteur(s) : Kriel Lize ;

Photographs of individuals who lived in South Africa in the colonial era had been studied from various perspectives by researchers with various interests. This scholarship holds a prominent place in our teaching curriculum in Visual Culture Studies at the University of Pretoria. Owing to digitisation, we have a wide – and growing – variety of photographs at our disposal in the public domain – some being returned to the limelight after many years, others being circulated amongst (potentially) large audiences for the first time. In my interaction with students, I consider it my role to emphasise the importance of contextualisation as departure point for interpretation. And yet, one also needs to ignite the imagination, to some extent at least, when trying to fathom the possible ‘ways of seeing’ that could have been possible for the individuals looking back at us out of old photographs. In 2019 I asked our second-year students to read historian Hlonipha Mokoena’s discussion of black policemen photographed in KwaZulu-Natal in the last half of the nineteenth century. I also asked them to consider Sara Byala and Ann Wanless’s discussion of white colonialists photographed in “traditional” “Zulu” attire. While I was working with this group of second-year students, one of my master’s students, Nkami Manyike, was writing about photographs that German missionaries had taken of African Christians during the early twentieth-century in what was then predominantly Pedi- and Venda-speaking areas of the then-Transvaal. Manyike phrased her observation, which was also shared by many of the undergraduate students in their feedback sessions, as follows: How can we make sense of the “apparent incompleteness in the appropriation of the Western attire” amongst many Africans looking into the nineteenth-century photographer’s camera, and right through it – into our eyes, a century later? I found Cape Town-based anthropologist Francis Naymjoh’s musings around African mobility and compositeness – which he applies with a very insightful reading of Amos Tutuola’s short stories – very helpful. Those students who applied Nyamjoh’s suggestions arrived at some illuminating, and some provocative, interpretations. The students started to show more awareness of the numerous ways in which one can misunderstand the “language of dress” (as scholars like Ross and Buckridge refer to it) in photographs – not only by us here and now, but also by successive generations of interpreters over time.  In my presentation I would like to share some of these photographs as they had been framed in scholarly writing to date, and demonstrate the value of Nyamjoh’s vocabulary of compositeness, mobility and conviviality in cultural translation, even though he had not conceptualised it specifically for application to visual sources.


Mot-clé : "compositeness", "dress", "incompleteness", "mobility", "photography", "South Africa", et "Visual Culture Studies"

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Voir le panel Circulation et enjeux culturels et politiques des objets ethnographiques, le cas de la photographie coloniale / “Circulation and cultural and political challenges of ethnographic objects, the case of colonial photography”

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