A Portrait of Respectability

Many years ago, my grandmother took her two children off to a photographic studio to have their portraits taken. In the fragile photograph that is now more than 80 years old, my father poses on an oversized chair, slightly leaning into his older sister who is standing next to him. I am intrigued that my grandmother, who made a living with needlework and baking, took the time and the money to dress them up and have them photographed. Even more fascinating to me is that she later gave up this photograph to be converted into a portrait. On the back of the photograph are neat notes and instructions concerning the colour of the hair, clothes, and shoes they are wearing. In the upper right-hand corner is my grandmother’s name and address: 18 Combrinck Street, Cape Town — a working-class area, not an address where you would imagine to find a portrait of two children hanging on the wall.

I have many questions. Why did my grandmother have it done? What did it mean to her to have such a portrait hanging on her wall? How much did it cost? Did she have to pinch and save and sacrifice for this symbol of status? Where did she hang it and what did she do with it every time she moved?

Airbrushed photographic portraiture came to Cape Town from Chicago in the 1930s, and my grandmother must have been among one of their earliest clients. Travelling salesmen would visit homes across the country, in Moravian mission stations, rural towns, and big cities. They would knock on the doors of coloured, Black, Indian, and Jewish families and entice them to part with their cherished photographs for months. These they took to the studio where they would be enlarged, printed, and coloured in, to be converted into portraits that would be framed and hung on walls as a symbol of status and respectability.

The portrait gives me a sense of a deliberate attempt to signal respectability. The subjects have been tidied up, my aunt’s fringe has been straightened, the curl on my father’s forehead has been removed. The blue-pink background democratises their circumstances, making where they lived irrelevant. In fact, they look perfectly respectable. I wonder if this was one of the reasons motivating my grandmother — a desire to show her family as respectable, to disturb the conventional representation of a racist and oppressive society that would portray her and her family as less-than.

Portraiture has always had a link with wealth, power, and stature, extending back to Pharaonic eras when humans who were acclaimed as gods were portrayed in paintings. During medieval times when the church was particularly powerful, the subject of portraits tended to be religious in nature, but later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, more secular subjects who were wealthy and powerful, commissioned portraits. Airbrushed portraiture was a highly popular business that cut across class, race, and religion, from small country towns to big cities, in a society that was organised along unequal social relations, tightly bound to a legacy of slavery. It attests to the importance of respectability as a mode of structuring in the African and “coloured” world.

Apartheid sought to erase the history of the oppressed and the colonial and apartheid photographic archives were used to fix difference in terms of race, gender, and culture. These seemingly ordinary photographs capture different ways of living and being, presenting different images and offering a range of viewpoints to both challenge and negate attempts to affix certain stereotypes. We can choose how we interpret what we are looking at rather than being told that there is only one way to view the people in this image, who the oppressors would have us view in a negative fashion tied up with drinking, drugs, and criminality — the problems attributed to the result of miscegenation, the effects of “racial” mixture.

Portraits like these and photographs in the album of the oppressed disturb the memories we have and disrupt the dominant narrative of apartheid, forcing us to reflect on how the oppressed were represented. Family photographs have the power to destabilise this narrative. Through them, we may confront and challenge the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid that sought to brand us as inferior.

My grandmother’s reasons will remain hidden from me, but I believe that she attempted to gain control of how her family was being portrayed, challenging the stereotypes of how they should look and be seen. This is what British-Jamaican sociologist, Stuart Hall, urged ordinary people to do — regain control of an image-dominated world and challenge stereotypes by introducing new ideas, new knowledge, and new dimensions of meaning in order to keep representation open. These seemingly ordinary actions were revolutionary and subversive then, an attempt to disrupt the dominant order. I like that image of my grandmother — a strong, independent woman, provider, and fierce protector of her children.

This month, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, the largest art museum in Africa, reopened its doors after a national lockdown with an exhibition titled, Home is Where the Art Is: Art made, loved and owned by Capetonians. People from all over Cape Town were invited to submit works of art and I submitted this portrait of my father and his sister. I think that it belongs to a community, bigger than my family or my father’s. It holds the stories of a community and, as such, has an important role to play in the healing of communities, allowing us to connect with each other and see each other as human.