CEDRIC NUNN: CALL AND RESPONSE
SEPTEMBER 14-OCTOBER 3, 2013
The Omenka Gallery is proud to host Call and Response, an exhibition of a series of photographs begun in the late 1970s by internationally celebrated South African artist, Cedric Nunn. As the title of this exhibition Call and Response suggests, Cedric Nunn has always felt that he has a vocation and that he can answer its call through his photography. The exhibition runs from September 14 to October 3, 2013.
Born in 1957 in Nongoma, KwaZulu, Nunn began photographing in the early 1980s. His initial interest was in documenting the realities of apartheid being ignored by the mainstream media. Exhibiting intensively, Nunn continues to focus on social change, most especially rural issues. With a successful career, spanning across various capacities in the media, facilitating several photography workshops and teaching at the Wits University School of Arts, Nunn remains one of the most important figures in the narratives of contemporary art practice on the continent.
The photographs presented here, centre on South Africa’s recent social and political history and are a personal commentary on societal ills and poor living conditions of blacks in Johannesburg. Captured are significant events like the forced exodus of the people in KwaZulu-Natal and the Mozambican civil war, which began in 1977 and claimed a reported 1 million people while displacing 5 million others. The artist reveals:
“I was particularly struck by the racism in my own mixed-race community and sought to understand this and why it was that mixed-race people were so prone to alcoholism, unemployment, broken marriages, teenage pregnancy, and other social ills.”
Of importance is the fact that the photographs are shot in black-and-white, which lends to their historical significance. Strongly individual, the photographs collectively betray the artist’s compassion and sense of responsibility to his people – a condition that informs the title of the show. However difficult their circumstances are, Nunn manages to capture people in his photographs in an incredibly sensitive and truthful way. His images preserve the dignity of both his subjects and his audience. For example, the incredible image, Deborah Eksteen and Noel Norris visiting the grave of Deborah´s recently deceased father. In this shot he has captured the whole tragedy and beauty of life. The couple, just married, is embracing each other beside the graveyard of her father. Relatives beside the scene are deeply involved emotionally. Future and past, emotional heights and depths accompany each other in a balanced composition. Once one has seen this image, one will remember it forever.
A Tenant Farmer Family Evicted from White-owned Land from 1988 was photographed in Weenen, KwaZulu-Natal. The complete tragedy of the apartheid system is given a face in this photograph. The poor family was forced to leave their land and instead live in tents. It is a quiet but strong image for the system of oppression, similar to the photograph, Migrant worker from the Eastern Cape on a sugar farm from 1987. A young black man stands with his guitar in front of endless fields of sugar cane. Cedric Nunn, or rather his photographs have given a voice to all these people.
Call and Response has travelled to several major countries on 3 continents including Germany, the United States, Mozambique and South Africa. Indeed, Nigeria shares a similar history with South Africa, having witnessed a civil war from 1967 to 1970, that claimed an estimated 3 million lives, mostly from hunger and disease. Today, the effects of the war are still being felt along economic, ethnic, cultural and religious lines.
The events of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war have since become contested sites and a continued point of reference. On the one hand, the Igbos believe that oil money employed to rebuild Biafra was diverted by Nigerian government officials to their ethnic areas. In addition, Igbos who fled for their lives during the pogroms and war returned to find their positions taken over. This led to feelings of grave injustice as Nigerian government policies were perceived by the Igbo middle class as economically disabling. This situation worsened with Nigeria changing its currency with the result that Biafra’s supply of pre-war Nigerian currency was no longer honoured. At the end of the war, only 20 pounds was given to any Igbo regardless of the amount of money he owned in the bank in pre-war Nigerian or Biafran currency. This was seen as a deliberate policy to hold back the Igbo middle class leaving them with little wealth to expand their business interest.
On the other hand, the Nigerian government did not feel the need to reinstate the Igbos regarding them as having ‘resigned’ and their properties ‘abandoned’. The Nigerian Guardian of May 29, 2000 reported that President Olusegun Obasanjo commuted to retirement the dismissal of all military persons who fought for Biafra’s secession. In a national broadcast, he stated that his decision was informed by the principle that “Justice must at all times be tempered with mercy.” Igbo accounts will always speak of great injustice, while the Nigerian government’s version extols their virtues of forgiveness and mercy. Within these contexts, memory becomes a tool for probing the past and shaping the future.
Against this background, it therefore becomes necessary for the exhibition to tour Nigeria. Also central to this argument for the show to berth in Lagos, are the important economic and socio-cultural roles South Africa and Nigeria play on the continent. Indeed, South Africa and Nigeria are two of the most dynamic spaces of artistic practice in Africa. Hopefully, this exhibition will be the beginning of several conversations between Johannesburg and Lagos. It is hoped that this exhibition will not only provoke thought and add to growing discourse on contemporary African art, but serve to heal and further reconcile those who grew up under conditions of violence. Many suffered the loss of loved ones and others, life’s opportunities through disruptions to their education. Fewer still, redirected the skills acquired during times of political unrest to criminal endeavours.
Many of the present generation may not have witnessed firsthand these events but arguably the effects are significant, most especially the stories passed down from hand to mouth that leave in their wake, deep psychological scars and memories.
Call and Response thus serves an extended purpose to inspire forthcoming generations to respond to a call to transform their societies through genuine reconciliation, tolerance and exemplary leadership.
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High resolution images and more information on the artists are available on request.