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A History, Visualized: Celebrating UWC's Proud Heritage With Patricia Hayes

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

A picture, as they say, can be worth a thousand words, and maintaining audiovisual archives can tell us important stories about people’s lives, cultures and histories - as UWC’s Prof Patricia Hayes, SARChI Chair in Visual History & Theory, explains.

(Published - 27 October 2020)

A picture can change the world. Take, for example, the picture by Sam Nzima that documented the Soweto Youth Uprising. Nothing could have brought home the horrors of the apartheid regime quite as strongly as the image of high schooler Mbuyisa Makhutha cradling the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson. Images like these are part of our history, like it or not - and honouring images like these are what UN World Day for Audiovisual Heritage is all about.

As SARChI Chair in Visual History and Theory, University of the Western Cape (UWC) Prof Patricia Hayes explores the potential offered by visual studies, investigating key methodological and epistemological questions, as well as issues of civil engagement and representation through popular arts and social media.

“Visual History is an interdisciplinary research niche,” Prof Hayes explains. “Its starting point is to address the huge neglect of rich photographic archives in South Africa and the subcontinent in terms of historical and humanities research, with potential implications for contemporary social and cultural debate.” 

According to UNESCO, audiovisual archives represent a priceless heritage which is an affirmation of our collective memory and a valuable source of knowledge, since they reflect the cultural, social and linguistic diversity of our communities. The UNESCO Archives has launched the project ‘Digitizing our shared UNESCO history’ with this very goal in mind.

“The South African History Archive in Johannesburg does a wonderful job of archiving and creating projects around audiovisual collections for which it is responsible,” she says. “And UWC is home to the Mayibuye Collections that include a significant archive of audio-visual material concerning the struggle against apartheid of enormous historical value. The preservation and promotion of access to these archives will promote research, teaching and public programmes.” 

As Chair, her goal has been to address the huge neglect of rich photographic archives in South Africa and the subcontinent in terms of historical and humanities research. She says the study of visual history is as much about teaching new ways of seeing as figuring out what history fell through the cracks because of a focus only on the written word.

“Several interdisciplinary developments promoted a visual turn in the humanities, and this was the chance to open the discipline of history to questions about the image, about what kinds of history it represents,” she notes. “It was also a chance to draw our students into visual literacy and even the production of photographic images themselves, as well as an appreciation of the visual culture within their own families and communities.”   

Visual History: Looking To The Past, Looking To The Future

Born in Zambia and educated in Zimbabwe and the UK as a scholar of African history, gender studies and visuality, Hayes began research on photography and the question of history after completing her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Initially conceived through an exhibition project on Namibia called ‘The Colonising Camera’ (1998), a collaborative visual research project on South African colonialism in Namibia supported by the innovative History Department at UWC, the research and teaching project in Visual History became firmly established.

“I was drawn to UWC because the History Department was famous for curriculum innovation and radical public history,” she says. “Despite this, UWC never had art or art history - a symptom of a wider problem of lack of interest in the visual culture of most South Africans who are not part of a white middle class, and were left outside art discourses.”

Specific paradigms and postgraduate research associated with the Chair now include documentary photography; liberation struggles and the post-apartheid; digital photography in the postcolony; and, photography and historical method in social media. It’s a busy job.

“I teach two postgraduate modules that promote critical methodologies in dealing with the visual; I organise the photographic training of postgraduate students; I liaise with the documentary film course run by the Centre for Humanities Research,” she notes. “And together with my team of postgraduate students we run a reading group in visual theory each year; together with my postgrad team we organise and host an international workshop on visual history each year.”

Her field may be all about the past, but Prof Hayes is looking to the future. - and rethinking everything in the wake of the digital revolution. 

Prof Hayes emphasises the need for young minds to continually challenge the status quo. 

“The ploughing of new research constantly back into the curriculum to challenge existing paradigms stimulates postgraduate research, capacity development and international partnerships,” she says. “Students have become authors, collaborating at the highest level in re-theorising visuality from the global south, and changing our understanding of history through the publication of original and excellent research from within the African university.”

Her work has resulted in a book authored by African graduate students - the recently-published Ambivalent: Photography and Visibility in African History.

“That is our contribution – to make a dent in how historians do their research and prove you can work critically with images.”

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