Movie Snaps at the District Six Homecoming Centre is an exhibition tracking glimpses of life in Cape Town from before and during apartheid. Combining photography with simple yet evocative installations, it interweaves various threads: the personal with the public, the then with the now, the trends with the politics, and the many poignant stories the exhibition unearthed.
The original “Movie Snaps” was an iconic pavement photographic studio situated opposite the Cape Town Post Office at the edge of the Grand Parade. Founded after World War II, the enterprise ran for over 40 years, tirelessly documenting fashionable citizens dressed to be seen in town. Those wishing to purchase their photo could receive it by post a few days later for a small fee.
Intrigued by her own family’s collection of polaroids some decades later, Dr Siona O’Connell from the Centre for Curating the Archives (CCA), sought a bigger story to tell. In response to her call for others’ submissions of original movie snaps pictures, came a flood of exciting feedback: faded photographs and accompanying stories about Cape Town and its people cropped up from across the city –- from “Bantry Bay to Bonteheuwel, Milnerton to Mitchells Plain”, as the exhibition’s information blurb reads. Her project, Movie Snaps, gained momentum with the help of her skilled task force, and its 31 January opening was apparently packed.
Erica de Greef – my aunt, who, with expertise in fashion and heritage studies, was part of the research team – accompanied me on my visit to share some insights. Whilst chatting, we perched on vintage chairs that were situated centrally in the exhibition space to create a “home aesthetic”. To our right were large, composite images of the city today superimposed by figures from the Movie Snaps era. Alongside them were neatly shelved original polaroids that had been donated to the project. Beneath the window sprawled a pile of rubble that a graduate from Michaelis art school had excavated from District Six – a blunt symbol of violence. More photos lined the walls at the other end of the room, where four mannequins stood, each clad in archetypal dress for the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies respectively.
Pointing to the blurring of the personal and the public permeating the exhibit, Erica highlighted its intimacy. Documenting street fashion, which essentially expresses identity in some way or another, the photographs’ stories are much fleshier than their clothing. In addition, the highly personal, “souvenir-like” qualities of Movie Snaps photos intensify their traction: each exudes a subjectivity that is essentially unknowable and thus forever mysterious. I fixed on the eyes of a young woman against a tangerine wall, which pierce into her unknown future. “Pausing to recognise another’s humanity is a powerful process. It builds empathy”, said Erica, and I nodded as my mind moved to the forced removals, which would have shunted this woman to some other place.
The way the exhibition toys with time also struck me. While some images on display remain unaltered, others are digital amalgamations of the past and present, overlaying contemporary Cape Town with ghost-like figures from the past that have been deep-etched and cut from Movie Snaps scans. Erica compared these manipulations of memories to palimpsests – manuscripts, either from scrolls or books, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the pages can be reused, for other documents. The subjects here, resuscitated and that much more relatable, are certainly being used to say something new. “These ordinary images suggest a forceful place to think about crucial questions in the post-apartheid landscape, including questions of self-representation, citizenship, the archive and freedom”, according to O’Connell.
Thus politics can shine through the lens of fashion. As Erica explained, fashion can delineate the progression of time, in this case, blatantly reflecting the effect of deepening apartheid. The demographics of the Movie Snaps photographs she was working with clearly shifted after the demolition of District Six; there were simply no people of colour pictured in town for leisure into the seventies. This oblique angle unto apartheid lends Movie Snaps a haunting subtlety, that has left me wondering about the intricate network of these images embroidering Cape Town and beyond – images reflecting a bygone era of freedoms that were violently stifled. As one visitor’s comment reads, the exhibition “brings back so many happy memories amidst the suffering of an oppressive system”.
Yanna Romano is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and a postgraduate researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her photographs and words explore what is unresolved and alive in the spaces she enters — the conflicting perspectives, the echoing questions, and the stories that thread them together.
Main photo: Young boy dressed for town before it became a place for “whites only”. Yanna Romano.Read older posts from this section