The Land of Cedric Nunn

POSTED ON: August 29, 2019 IN Candice Jansen, On Artists, Word View

by Candice Jansen

 W.T.J. Mitchell’s, Landscape and Power (1994) helped change the understanding of the word “landscape” from a noun to a verb. The anthology “asks that we think of landscape, not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed.” [1] If landscape then is a practice or a process, not just an image, how can we imagine the landscapes of South African photographer, Cedric Nunn (1957-)? “I am not a landscape photographer per se,” [2] he deflects in the post-script to his first photographic monograph, Unsettled: The 100 Years War of Resistance by Xhosa against Boer and British (2015). His book of photographic landscapes evokes a forgotten resistance history and maps critical sites of memory that he writes, are “about imagining, my imagining.” [3]

Nunn photographs both a distant past and an “attitude towards land.” [4] He may not consider himself a ‘landscape photographer’, but his activism has always been touched by land as a history, an identity, and a feeling that colours the lives of rural Black people. He came to photography during the early 1980s as the cultural movement against apartheid gained momentum after the 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaborone, hosted by the Medu Arts Ensemble. There documentary photography emerged as a collective practice of resistance, called for by late photographer, Peter McKenzie (1955-2017) in his address, “Bringing the Struggle into Focus.” [5] Taking sides became the ethos of Afrapix, the iconic anti-apartheid photography collective, who through the decade served as a critical intermediary between the mainstream and alternative press, between the visual needs of political and grassroots organisations around South Africa and in exile.

While Nunn worked in Afrapix, he also supported his family. He also became a father. Nunn’s first landscapes really were of his family, who are tied to a complex history of land shaped by nineteenth century European-Zulu contact, by institutional collaboration, and war. His ancestors are bound up in colonial native policies, and the legacies of apartheid coloured and bantustan classifications. On his father’s side, Nunn is a fourth generation descendent of the white Zulu chief, John Dunn and his forty-nine wives, who were all Zulu, except for one. On his mother’s side, Nunn is a descendent of the English trader, Arthur Nicholson and his wife, Eleanor Velepi Mabaso. Their oldest daughter, Amy, was Nunn’s grandmother and an influential family member who he photographed for more than twenty years before her death in 2003.

Not a Place, but a Feeling

Nunn develops photographic landscapes as history, identity, and feeling in the photography book, Unsettled, and the exhibition, Return: Surviving Genocide, Dispossession and Erasure (2018). In Unsettled he acknowledges African peoples’ “sense of land as being not something that you own, but something that owns you.” [6] This calling represented in Return, names a return of the Khoisan, a people disappeared from the historical record, who by the twentieth century was legislated out of existence. It begs a certain reckoning that may seem counter intuitive. A return appears to go back, when it moves forward. It may turn to what has been, but it faces what is to come, not just for Khoisan descendants, but also for a kind of historical myopia in South Africa. The rise of a Khoisan people after apartheid calls for a history of land that goes beyond apartheid, before the colonial event of the 1913 Land Act.

Return is but a beginning. For South African photographic history, its attention on the Khoisan recasts an image largely visualised before the invention of the camera. Whether in travel drawings, or displayed as part-beast, the Khoisan were also called ‘Hottentots’ and ‘Bushmen’: key photographic subjects of prisons and science. Khoisan historian, Yvette Abrahams writes of what it means to feel part of a people who were studied as “living fossils” [7] or classified as coloured. She writes, “[w]e are of them but [we] are not them. We feel both continuity and disjuncture.” [8] After all these centuries, Return makes photographic room for the Khoisan in the present. Nunn does not go looking for a “vanishing” people. [9] Nor does he photograph the Khoisan as a living dead. Rather, Return visualises that feeling of which Abrahams writes; that feeling of a struggle for a history to appear.

Return: Surviving Genocide, Dispossession and Erasure, 2018. Buis Plaas,Western Cape, South Africa. Courtesy: Cedric Nunn

Nunn stood by the side of a grave. He looked over a community of death. Towards the hilltop, concrete homes, some occupied, others abandoned, appear to descend into death. The sun’s glare threw few and short shadows across the dry sand. Life grows there. Small trees rose up between the graves as shade for future mourners who will remember their dead. The smallness of the houses resembled the stones that mark each grave. The fencing that borders the cemetery is identical to the fencing that divide the plots. The fences around the dead and the fences around the living appeared to make their own crosses. Little here appeared to separate the dead from life.

Nunn’s landscapes are not dispassionate. They are historical and touching. They “facilitate a kind of embodied proximal sensibility of moving in close concert with the feel of the land” [10] in Lisa Cartwright’s definition of ‘topographic feeling’. In an effort to describe how sensations bear upon vision, to show how we feel is also how we see, Cartwright describes this feeling as “a sensual, tactile, physically grounded feeling for the transitional qualities of a place across which a body can be imagined to move.” [11] She believes that topographic feeling is one of “connectedness to the ground that can be imagined from an optical standpoint outside that space.” [12] Nunn’s landscapes thus are “intimate, grounded in a sense of what engagement in a given physical place might truly entail. It offers a vast scope of situated detail.” [13]

The only situated detail in Nunn’s landscape of Buis Plaas is the only named grave that he stands next to. Who was ‘Alfredo Buis’? He carries the name of this place, located near the Gouritz River, Herbertsdale, and Mossel Bay in what became the Western Cape. Buis Plaas takes its name from Coenraad de Buys, along with Buysdorp, a coloured village in Limpopo. [14] In 1888, Paul Kruger granted land to de Buys descendants “for services rendered to the Transvaal Republic.” [15] De Buys was a historic figure of French Huguenot descent, who during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, threw his weight behind African resistance against the British. He has been called, “an adventurer, elephant hunter, farmer, outlaw…, outcast, rebel, facilitator and interpreter for missionaries, cattle rustler, leader of a revolt, confidante and advisor to a powerful Xhosa chief (Ngqika) and even instated as chief of one of the northern interior tribes.” [16] Ngqika ka Mlawu was Chief of the amaRarabe. His mother is one of the few identified Black women with whom de Buys is said to have either cohabited, or married. His unions is said to have fathered more than three hundred children. De Buys died from a journey to what is now Mozambique that he did not return from. His remains were never found, which means De Buys, himself has no grave. [17]

Unsettled and Return chart multiple histories. They also point to a history of the Khoisan, which is entangled in the history of the Xhosa. [18] Nunn came to photographing Return in part by finishing Unsettled. [19] He foresees a trilogy and Slavery as its final instalment. Nunn’s trilogy thus far is not just about resistance it also performs resistance in the choice to politicise the landscape portrait through drawing on historians as his eyes and ears on the ground.

Not an Event, but a History

The Xhosa’s 100-year war against the British and the Boers has been called “not only South Africa’s most protracted anti-colonial confrontation, [but] also one of its most complex.” [20] Yet, how can a hundred-year war be imagined, let alone lived? From generation to generation, in which resistance is waged over and in time. Resistance becomes an inheritance.

But should Nunn’s landscapes be entered into as history? To what extent is his looking into the past also about facing a disillusionment with the present? Neelika Jayawardane argues that Nunn’s landscapes “raise up history that is there-but-not-there.” [21] But does photography always tell the truth? What use is a history photographed, after its event? What happens when the historical event becomes not evidence, but only symptom? [22] Can Nunn’s landscapes in Elizabeth Edward’s words, “have the potential for performing histories in ways in which perhaps we least expect, when they are used not merely as evidential tools but as tools with which to think through the nature of historical experience.” [23]

Unsettled: The 100 Years War of Resistance by Xhosa Against Boer and British, 2013. Between Southwell and Kasouga, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Courtesy: Cedric Nunn

Edwards calls photography “a performance of history,” [24] which Unsettled shows as a resistance that is more than defiant. It also is quiet or hidden between the bushes. It could go unnoticed. Or ask of us to look again. It could be overgrown with weeds, even laid in stone; rooted into the earth as an elephant paw of a tree that weighs upon the land. Nunn looks there. Down where he appeared to have placed his camera on the ground, from where he imagined a landscape after seeing the ruin of a garrison. ‘Garrison’ is a military term that suggests an idea of collective enclosure, or the need to guard against danger, keeping the outside, out and the inside, safe.

Nunn’s landscapes of a garrison ruin are captioned: “Theopolis, former garrison, then mission settlement, destroyed by the British settlers when the mostly Khoi and free slave inhabitants were suspected of assisting in the Kat River Settlement rebellion of 1853. Between Southwell and Kasouga.” Another reads, “[t]he ruins of Theopolis.” [25] Nunn almost never found these ruins. The land had almost claimed it. Nearby, there are no sign posts. Nunn writes of having to call on the help of the ancestors. [26] He went looking with Professor Julie Wells, who had been there twenty years ago. Eventually, the pair found what they had been looking for. Nunn recalls it was “an extraordinary place to visit.” [27]

His captions leave unsaid that the Settlement was established in 1829 as a defence against the Xhosa, who were expelled from the area. The colonialists re-bordered the land, gained control over the Kat River, and repopulated the settlement with a diversity of Khoi, San and other groupings. The colonialists exploited their labour capacity with the promise of equality under colonial law. These populations were not entitled to own land, but legislated to work it. Twenty-two years into this arrangement, the rebellion broke out by 1851. By then, war had broken out twice before, in 1834 and 1846, when the Xhosa and the Thembu defended land against colonial intrusion. Historian Tony Kirk’s account in Progress and Decline in the Kat River Settlement, 1829-1854 describes lives of peoples for whom a language to remember their memory struggles to appear. Kinds of people such as ‘Hottentot’, and ‘Kaffirs’, ‘rebels’, ‘coloured classes’, ‘Xhosa tribesmen’, ‘Gonaqua Khoi’, ‘Bastaards’, ‘Gqunukwebe’, ‘native foreigners’, ‘Mfengu’, ‘the Ngqika’, ‘Kat River people’, ‘late apprentices’, ‘vagrants’, ‘incorrigibly idle’, and ‘bywooners’. [28]

How is the Kat River Rebellion remembered? Is it ‘a useable past’? [29] The colonialists never saw it coming. British Governor at the time, Sir Harry Smith wrote,

“I cannot avoid commenting, while upon the subject of this Hottentot revolution, upon an occurrence of so unaccountable a nature, and one unprecedented, I believe, in the history of the world. A mass of civilized men, the greater part born in the Christian faith, and the remainder converted and improving Christians, for years assembled in societies and villages under excellent clergymen, suddenly, and without any cause whatever, rush back, in nearly one torrent, to barbarism and savage life. This extraordinary proceeding must be ascribed either to the in-born evil propensities of man, and the natural objection inherent in his composition to subject himself to rule and the restraint of civilization, or to an agitation said to have been stirred up among these people, respecting which, however, I have as yet gathered no definite information, although it has been very generally declared that such is the fact.” [31]

Not a Home, but an Identity

Unsettled’s garrison ruin is also what appears as the remains of a failed rebellion. Yet, can Nunn’s landscapes of his maternal grandmother be seen as a portrait of a rebellion that he witnessed over a few generations and ended with Amy’s death at the age of 103? Nunn started photographing her around 1988. By then, Amy had outlived two husbands, and reared seven children, of which Nunn’s mother was the third. By then, he was seeped in Black Consciousness as a young man and spent a considerable time photographing his own family in places such as Mangete, iVuna, Ceza, Emoyeni, and Nongoma in KwaZulu. He started his documentary on family, Blood Relatives, early during the 1980s, [32] after Nunn left eight years of factory work and pursued photography. By 1988, Nunn saw Amy’s life in iVuna as a critique of apartheid. She “did not quite fit in with the orthodoxy of the Apartheid eighties,” he wrote for his first exhibition at the Macufe Festival on family entitled Madhlawu, calling Amy by her Zulu name. [32]

iVuna, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 1988. Courtesy: Cedric Nunn

She carried a world on her back. She wore a dress of leaves that she made herself. Her sun hat had seen better days. Her harvest bag was full. It rested in her bent and soiled fingers that appear like bird claws. Amy held it from the bottom with her arms that look gnarled and weathered as succulent growths. Nunn photographed Amy as if she were a political animal or a moving tree in its own habitat, slowly and steadily making its way. This was Amy’s regular journey from her fields to her wattle and daub house where she lived a life of a “peasant farmer…planting maize, sorghum, pumpkins and cotton, hoeing, feeding fowls, ducks and pigs, making grass mats, sewing clothes to sell, brewing Zulu beer (for which she was renowned), selling snuff from the tobacco she had grown and of course the inevitable cleaning and cooking in her own home.” [33] Yet, she appears to do more than live off the land. Nunn photographed her as being of it. She looked like the land. Dressed for it. Lived with it and Nunn photographed her against it, from below. Amy lived her life and made a politics appear. “What I observed [in Amy], Nunn wrote, “seemed to me to be a sliver of a way of life that could have been, but for the meddling of the Apartheid social experiment of group separation.” [34]

Amy was born in 1900 to a Zulu mother and a European father. Generations like hers grew up often orphaned from their extended families and because they were identified as coloured, were pulled to identify or misidentify with the opposing racial statuses of their parents. Amy’s generation were also alienated from the status of their children, who were Nunn’s parent’s generation, who became coloured with the advent of apartheid and reared their coloured children in coloured group areas. Apartheid ideology of separation during the 1980s would have wanted Amy to leave iVuna, become coloured and urban. But Amy refused. She had done it before. Amy’s earliest known refusal was as a young girl. She had taken up work as a nursemaid for a white family, who planned to move to the Cape, and wanted Amy to move with them. She said no because she thought, what would become of her mother? [35] Amy boarded the following train back to Nongoma, [36] where she stayed close to Velapi, who had Amy by her side until her end. Amy lived the rest of her life with Zulu people and close to the land, which was not always idyllic. She suffered environmental hardship and tribal law. Her house in iVuna was supposed to be temporary. After the death of her second husband, Amy was no longer entitled to have land. She never married again. The local chief instructed her to vacate her residence for the purposes of cattle grazing. [37]

With the help of her family, Amy rebuilt a home not too far away and left her stone house, which her son remembered with fondness: [38]

“It had three bedrooms, with a big veranda, a dining room, kitchen … there was the beer room. We weren’t allowed there, unless you go to clean, like my mother went there, she was very good at brewing beer, she learnt from our clan when our kraal was here. My father had a plastered rondavel where he worked; he had a tree there that was his workshop, two trees. And there was a bench under the tree [and] that is where he mostly spent his time. I worked with him there, because he repaired ploughs. We had a kind of plantation and a garden for my mother, mulberry trees, banana trees and orange trees.” [39]

Amy’s life could have been more convenient living in the modern comforts of her children’s lives as she aged and remained in iVuna. Although she lived with her son until close to her end, Amy would be supported by her daughters, Nunn’s mother and aunt, who each would visit and stay for months at a time. They respected Amy’s wishes. About her death, Nunn wrote, “our matriarch is now gone… The home she created and maintained is gone, and with it our connection to the ‘old country’. But something remains, a pattern perhaps, that she established, of possibilities, of ways of being that transcend narrow boundaries.” [40] Those boundaries were not just racial. For to remain in Zululand, meant not just resisting race, it also meant resisting urbanisation.

Amy shaped Nunn’s visual politics. He photographed her life as an apartheid transgression and made of her image a metaphor for a vanishing time, for a time before apartheid, before ethnicity became racialised, and before the category of ‘African’ would become a post-apartheid category of race. Amy, Unsettled and Return are part of a practice of landscape that lends itself to what Santu Mofokeng calls “metaphorical biography.” [41] Nunn’s landscapes perform a kind of photographic biography by picturing resistance, but also by being resistant of forgetting to recast oneself, the story of the land and its people for a South African future.

Candice Jansen writes on photography.



[1] Mitchell, Landscape And Power, 1.
[2] Nunn, Unsettled, 155.
[3] Nunn, Unsettled, 156.
[4] Nunn, Unsettled, 156.
[5] McKenzie, “Bringing the Struggle into Focus,” 17. 
[6] Nunn, Unsettled, 156.
[7] For the use of the term ‘living fossils’ in relation to the Khoisan, See: Phillip, The Bushmen. Cited in Kuljian, Darwin’s Hunch.
[8] Abrahams, Resistance, Pacification And Consciousness, 23.
[9] Landau, “With Camera And Gun In Southern Africa,” 130.
[10] Cartwright, “Topographies Of Feeling,” 301.
[11] Cartwright, “Topographies Of Feeling,” 301.
[12] Cartwright, “Topographies Of Feeling,” 301.
[13] Cartwright, “Topographies Of Feeling,” 301.
[14] For a study on coloured masculinity in Buysdorp see: Ebersohn, Ways Of Loving.
[15] De Jongh. “Identity Politics And The Politics Of Identity,” 27-38.
[16] De Jongh. “Identity Politics And The Politics Of Identity.”
[17] De Jongh. “Identity Politics And The Politics Of Identity.”
[18] See Nuttall, Entanglement, 1. Nuttall writes of entanglement as “a condition of being twisted together or entwined, involved with; it speaks of an intimacy gained, even if it was resisted, or ignored or uninvited. It is a term which may gesture towards a relationship or set of social relationships that is complicated, ensnaring, in a tangle, but which also implies a human foldedness.”
[19] Nunn, Unsettled, 161. For another description of how Unsettled was institutionally supported see Corrigall, “Beyond Trauma,” 1-23.
[20] Peires, “Introduction,” xvii.
[21] Jayawardane, “Photographing In The Presence Of Absence,” 149.
[22] For an exploration of ‘history-after-apartheid’ See: Lalu, The Deaths Of Hintsa.
[23] Edwards, “Photography and The Performance Of History.”
[24] Edwards, “Photography and The Performance Of History,” 29.
[25] Nunn, Unsettled, 73-75.
[26] Nunn, Unsettled, 157.
[27] Nunn, Unsettled, 157.
[28] Kirk, “Progress And Decline In The Kat River Settlement, 1829-1854,” 411-428.
[29] Fry, “Late Eighteenth- And Early Nineteenth-Century South Africa.”
[30] Kirk, “Progress And Decline In The Kat River Settlement, 1829-1854,” 411.
[31] Blood Relatives the exhibition first showed only 15 years later in 2005. 
[32] Nunn, “‘Madhlawu’ Exhibition Statement.”
[33] Nunn, “‘Madhlawu’ Exhibition Statement.”
[34] Nunn, “‘Madhlawu’ Exhibition Statement.”
[35] Interview with Amy Louw in iVuna, circa 1990, filmed by Marcus Tourien (interviewer unknown).
[36] Jansen, Coloured Black.
[37] Jansen, Coloured Black.
[38] Jansen, Coloured Black.
[39] Faber, Group Portrait South Africa, 48
[40] Nunn, “‘Madhlawu’ Exhibition Statement.”
[41] Mofokeng, “Trajectory Of A Street Photographer,” 46.


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