On Thursday the 14th of May The Mirror in the Ground – an exhibition curated by Siona O’Connell in conjunction with the launch of Nick Shepherd’s book The Mirror in the ground: Archeology, Photography and the making of a disciplinary archive — will be opened at the Centre for African Studies Gallery (UCT Upper Campus) at 18h00. See event details in the poster below.

The exhibition begins with a question: What does it mean to decolonize disciplinary knowledges? Archaeology and photography share parallel histories in southern Africa. Advances in camera technology in the late-nineteenth century coincided with a growing interest in the material evidence of “prehistory”. Cameras were carried into the field to document sites and sediments, record finds, capture mise-en-scènes, and record images of camp life. The optical empiricism of the period meant that the camera had the status of a “truth apparatus”, valued alike by science and the modernising state. At the same time, unintended contents leaked into the frame to challenge conventional accounts of disciplinary histories and processes.

The photographs in this exhibition come from the archive of the South African archaeologist AJH “John” Goodwin (1900-1959). They speak of many things. They speak of an archaeological aesthetic, and the role of the visual imagination in processes of disciplinary formation. They speak of settler science, and of a passionate engagement with the landscapes of the past. They also speak of the entanglement of archaeology with forms of racial science, manifested as a white gaze on black bodies. In the case of archaeology, these are the bodies of both the living and the dead. They speak of the intimacy of the grave, and of the violence of the act of exhumation. More generally, they speak of absent presences, of the hauntedness of the archive, and of projection and “doubling”. John Goodwin is doubled by his unacknowledged black co-worker, Adam Windwaai (Adam Blowing-in-the-Wind). Largely absent from the written archive, Adam Windwaai’s presence in the photographic archive takes the form of a challenge and a reproach. In the directness of his gaze lies the genesis of a counter-project: an archaeology after archaeology.

In the book that forms the source for this exhibition, The Mirror in the Ground: Archaeology, Photography and the Making of a Disciplinary Archive (Centre for Curating the Archive and Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2015), Nick Shepherd writes that the coloniality of archaeology is manifested as a form of deep inscription in the discipline. Forms of disciplinary entitlement and the violence of “ways of knowing” constitute a thread that links the past to the present. The dead hunter/gatherers of Peers Cave and Oakhurst Cave find their counterparts in the forcibly removed dead of Prestwich Street, and the archive becomes a mirror in which we encounter our contemporary selves.

In 2013, Shepherd wrote: “The Mirror in the Ground is based on a sustained research project spanning ten years, looking at histories of practice in South African archaeology. This has been extensively published in journal articles and book chapters. Missing from these conventional academic formats has been a sustained focus on the photographs themselves. In proposing a curated book, my idea is to find a format which allows me to approach the intellectual biography of a discipline through the primacy of the photographic image. I would argue that this is especially important in the case of archaeology, a discipline which is itself a material practice, where the performativity of the act of excavation brings us into a fully sensorially engaged appreciation of material worlds. Finally – it goes without saying – my aim is that the book should be visually appealing. Many of the photographs from the Goodwin Collection are enormously visually engaging: beautiful, mysterious, eloquent, and unfathomable.”

Find out more about the book on its website: http://mirrorintheground.com/


The Mirror in the Ground forms part of the series in Visual History by the CCA.

Header image from the book. Caption: The South African archaeologist AJH “John” Goodwin and an unnamed assistant, Oakhurst Cave, southern Cape coast, 1932-1935.