by Sean O'Toole
Group Portrait South Africa
Compiled by: Paul Faber
Edited by: Annari van der Merwe and Paul Faber
Published by: Kwela Books and KIT Publishers
Nine family stories packaged as an art exhibition, a book, and a not too subliminal narrative about a troubled country: as an idea this might sound either contrived or banal, worse yet both contrived and banal. Thankfully Group Portrait is neither. Based on the conviction that "personal histiography is of great importance, especially with regard to country like South Africa," Group Portrait embodies an ambitious attempt to show history through "ordinary people". The way in which it sets out to do this is quite extraordinary, even if the conceit of 'ordinary' does not always hold.
Group Portrait owes its existence to 'South African Family Stories: A Group Portrait'. This large group show, at the KIT Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, describes the origins of South Africa through the experiences of nine individual families. Each family story unfolds across four or five generations, with one or two persons representing each generation. Some of the families selected for the exhibition include prominent public figures, such as Sol Plaatje, President Marthinus Steyn and Dolly Rathebe, but in general most of the families claim no special public significance.
The exhibition has given the book editors rich material with which to work; family photographs, heirlooms, craft objects, memorabilia, official documents, family stuff. In some instances the photographs are private archival pieces, in other instances they are David Goldblatt's muted studies of the Mthethwa clan, the Nunns, the Le Fleurs, the Manuels, the Galadas, Niki Juggernath or Mmatanki Keepeng (of the Rathebe family). Group and individual, both are given equal scrutiny in this book.
Does it succeed? That is, does Group Portrait succeed in presenting a portrait of nine South African families that is at once idiosyncratic enough to be personal yet, at the same time, sufficiently disengaged to suggest the all-important metaphor. The answer to this depends on how you approach reading of this book. As a coffee table book it certainly succeeds quite well, the diversity of bric-a-brac presented offering enough cursory visual material to satisfy. But this would be a gross insult to the nine writers-researchers who set out to interpret the major moments in the respective families' lives.
Written in a documentary narrative style, the texts casually fuse history with biography. No mean trick in that; this is after a standard biography. But it is not style that is important here. Each of the nine family biographies evidence consummate skill in writing, offering the outsider a private view of the vagaries of history and personal circumstance that have gone on to shape the fortunes of every family presented. Ignore the caveat in the introduction that disavows any attempt in this book at an all-inclusive overview of South Africa; by implication this is what the book sets out to do, achieving this both subtly and succinctly.
But what about the art? Well, there is plenty of that, like Anton Kannemeyer's paint and ink portrait of Eric Le Fleur and Sam Nhlengethwa's painted portrait of Dolly Rathebe. Looking at Claudette Schreuders' Bust of Tibbie Steyn one realises that pictures of art can never really substitute for the real thing, no matter how sumptuous the layouts (and they are indeed sumptuous). But this very fact evidences a clever trick by Kwela Book publishers. After 'South African Family Stories: A Group Portrait' closes on September 21, the show will travel to South Africa where it will run at Johannesburg's Museum Africa from January 2004. Based on the evidence contained in this book alone, I'm buying an advance admission ticket for the show.