This past summer I spent two incredible months in South Africa serving and learning from the country’s wonderful people. For the first six weeks, I had the privilege of participating in a Vanderbilt Office of Active Citizenship global service program where eleven Vanderbilt students worked at a primary school and care center in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
I then spent another ten days in Cape Town to conduct research for my honors thesis, “View Points: Diverse Practices in Late 20th Century and Current South African Photography.” My writing focuses on the works of four South African photographers—Pieter Hugo, Zanele Muholi, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and Santu Mofokeng—and argues for the extreme mobility that portrait photographers have had and still provide to the socially tumultuous country.
Through the generous aid from a Downing grant, I gained invaluable experience with the very subject matter I have been passionately researching over the past year. I spent most of my time in Cape Town at the Michaelis Fine Arts Library on the University of Cape Town’s campus. All the resources that I had sought to obtain in the States were right at my fingertips in the Michaelis Library, whose collection primarily focuses on African and South African art.
I also visited the Iziko South African National Gallery to see their extraordinary exhibit on South African artists. The exhibit included works from numerous iconic native artists (for example, Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys, mixed media, 1985-1986) as well as a few works by the photographers I’m researching. To see these works in person has given my thesis argument so much more power in the sense that my personal experience will clarify and strengthen my writing. In addition to visiting the National Gallery’s main exhibitions, I also coordinated my schedule to include a day at their art library as well. There I found other texts that the Michaelis Library did not have.
The remainder of my time in Cape Town included visiting other galleries around town – my favorite was a Pieter Hugo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery. Hugo’s 1994 series depicts children from South Africa and Rwanda born after 1994 (the year apartheid was officially abolished from South Africa). Hugo printed the photos large scale and in full color. Although my thesis focuses on Hugo’s There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends series, experiencing his other series gave me a sense of the kind of visual language and physical presence he uses.
My time exploring what Cape Town had to offer, in both an academic sense and a cultural sense, laid the groundwork for my thesis to develop more maturely and naturally, something I would have never found in an American library or gallery. The seconds, minutes, and hours I spent pouring over books and photographs and absorbing the South African atmosphere made for many unforgettable memories.
Haley Brown, BA’17, is a history of art and psychology major. She will present the results of her research and defend her honors thesis in April. Her thesis advisor is Rebecca VanDiver, assistant professor of the history of art. Among Haley’s many photographs documenting her South African experience are the following (top to bottom): Street art in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town; the summit of Table Mountain overlooking the cape; Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys in the National Gallery; and peacocks outside the Blue Shed Coffee Roastry in Mossel Bay.