Carla Liesching (b.1985, South Africa) is a multi-disciplinary artist working with the media of photography, text, collage, sculpture, installation, bookmaking and design. Her experience of growing up in apartheid South Africa to a strong extent shapes her oeuvre which focuses on colonial histories and enduring constructions of race and geography. In her latest book ‘Good Hope’ published with MACK, the Cape of Good Hope is the focus point. Originally named by Portuguese explorers in 1488, this place in South Africa was known for its rich resources and was continually exploited throughout history at the expense of the Black and Indigenous majority that was then forced to rural reserves. Re-visited now through archive and text, Liesching invites her readers to become part of this discussion, too.
In an interview with Liesching, we dive into her art practice and the intricacies of her book.
What made you start working on this topic?
I was nine when the apartheid regime ended, and my teen years were the ‘decade of change’ that saw the birth of what late Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the ‘Rainbow Nation’. Against this backdrop—one of deep racial divides, inequity and attempts at reconciliation—I have always been acutely aware of both my Whiteness and my complicit settler heritage. The project started more broadly and abstractly: A visual investigation into the imagery of empire, and what Claudia Rankine calls ‘bloc Whiteness’—a source of unquestioned power that feels itself to be endangered even as it retains its hold on power. I realized quickly, however, that examining and calling Whiteness into question would require that I work from a deeply personal place, not centering but acknowledging my own inheritance of privilege, obtained as it was, and still is, through brute force and abhorrent racial violence. And so, I began the process of writing as a way of digging into the past-personal and present-political of my own life and the place I call home, the Cape.
In ‘Good Hope’, you are combining materials from apartheid-era South African Panorama magazines and National Geographics. How did you come across those and what were your criteria when organizing the materials together?
Yes, the story is almost too good to be true. In 2018, my mother and I were on a research trip to a small, largely White, farming community, revisiting the place where I lived for a significant part of my childhood. At that point in my process, I had no plans to include images in Good Hope, although the topic of colonial imagery and (mis)representation was very present in the text. On our way out of the town, we decided to stop at a thrift store, where I found a treasure trove in the form of a large box full to the brim with South African Panorama magazines (an apartheid-government subsidized publication), and ‘Africa themed’ National Geographics. From gold and diamond mines, Cape-to-Cairo railway plans, safaris, sunsets, and aerial views—the collection depicted visions of Southern Africa to attract tourists and foreign investors alike. It became quite clear to me that images had an important place in this book, and that strategies of collage and assemblage might work to unsettle and problematize the narratives and mythologies that still ‘lived on’ in these images in their original context. The writing remained a guide, and it turned into a sort of call-and-response game between the collection of texts and images.
There seems to be a rising trend in contemporary photography for artists to work with either personal or public archives. A sort of an appropriation of the old material which is then brought into a new context. What do you think archives can bring in the present and potentially in the future?
I believe photographs are extremely influential in shaping how we think of ourselves and others in the world, as well as what we believe to be true. There is a reason that colonial administrations were so quick to pick up photography as a tool, or as many scholars would argue, a weapon within a praxis of colonial power. There is much to learn from examining the ways photography is used in the service of power, historically and presently.
For me, for example, the process of examining South African Panorama magazines reveals their hidden agenda, laying bare the ways photography was employed by the apartheid government to sell a shiny world of industry, invention, learning, progress, order, and benevolent White dominance and control. It also reveals apartheid’s Calvinistic value system and the way that White women were used to sell ‘wholesome family values’, pristine and pure, while White men were champions of ‘exploration’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ at the ‘frontiers’. Sifting through family albums, there are echoes of these tropes. Grandpa with workers on the farm, Gran with white Calla lilies, Dad overlooking his land, Mom sitting outside a Ndebele hut, me at age ten dressed up as ‘an explorer’ in khakis from head to toe. Reexamining these images, which undoubtedly informed my visual vocabulary as a child, helps me to see the ways in which their legacies still have influence. It can therefore act as a good indicator of what needs to be unlearned.
In returning to old materials, though, there is also incredible potential for new discoveries in terms of what stories were covered up or silenced and buried, and how those stories might become visible now. I also believe it is important that there is a wider, more equitable distribution of the means and tools to digitize pictures and ephemera, in order to create new archives.
The cover alongside a few inside pages are printed in a bright green colour. Is there any symbolism behind this specific colour?
Yes! This was perhaps the most gratuitous design moment for me, but it does connect conceptually in various ways. There is the idea of the garden, which I explore at length, and then the fact that a lot of old and new books I was reading—Richard Grove’s ‘Green Imperialism’ being one—were also green, I suppose because they spoke of ‘nature’ and ‘land’. In my visual art, I also use a green-screen very often as a way to speak about images and fiction. Since Good Hope is about the history of settler-occupied gardens and grounds, and the fictions that continue to uphold a violent system, the green felt fitting.
I would define your book as a photo-text book as both text and images seem to have an equally important role. Could you please elaborate on the interplay of text and image in your book?
More and more, I think of Good Hope as a big sprawling collage—the text and image being part of the same instinct to break things open, examine, reexamine, build new things, take them apart again. Sometimes the images and text disrupt or question each other, other times they support and prop each other up. I love the way that combinations of text and image can create a space that is almost three-dimensional. The interstice feels open and inviting, asking the reader to stay a little longer than usual, find themselves within tangled connective pieces or between disparate components on the page.
How would you position yourself in the book?
Good Hope has a diaristic quality to it, and is written from my own perspective, as a white South African woman who lives between two places, the Cape and New York. In some fragments, I or my family are the subject of scrutiny, in other places I take on roles such as collector, observer, investigator, journalist, detective, undercover sleuth, telepathic interlocutor, tourist and time traveler. I write a lot about positionality and orientation in the book, but the writing itself is of course always my own personal perspective, including my attempts to confront, challenge, shift or expand my view, through reading, writing, looking and listening.
Do you think it is important to present narratives in a non-linear way when addressing the topics of colonialism and race?
I think it’s important to present narratives that address the topics of colonialism and race in many different ways. For me, fragmentation and non-linearity in the telling help to reject a guise of order and control, avoiding a single authoritative story, which I view as a hallmark of White-settler colonial versions of ‘History’. There are many writers doing very exciting things in this area: Zahra Patterson, Bhanu Kapil, M. NourbeSe Philip who wrote in her book Zhong!: “I deeply distrust this tool I work with—language. It is a distrust rooted in certain historical events that promulgated the non-being of African people. Language was and is central to this [European] project, hence the centrality of the critique of language in my work…” There is also Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, if you’re interested in reading more…
‘Good Hope’ can be interpreted as a “conversation starter”. As a white South African working on this sensitive topic, how do you reflect on the reception of your book so far?
I am very happy to hear that you view it as a conversation starter, although I would situate it within an already-ongoing conversation led by the incredible activists, students, scholars and thinkers involved in the struggle for liberation from what Professor Achile Mbembe calls ‘our entrapment in White mythologies’. It is a sensitive but urgent topic, and I have been admittedly surprised and thankful for the interest in the project thus far. As a White person speaking on Whiteness and issues of race, I am grateful to work within a community that isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions. If we are serious about ending White violence (the ‘we’ here being White people, because I do see racism as a White problem), we must be willing to be vulnerable, willing to be uncomfortable and unsafe.
What does hope mean for you?
There is a painful irony in the name The Cape of Good Hope, given the history of the site and the ‘hope’ to which it referred. So, the concept of hope here cannot be anything but complex and dubious.
The concern with a desire for hope and happy endings, ‘compulsory hope’ as Calvin Warren calls it in his essay ‘Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope’—the concern, he writes, is that it ‘allows one to disregard the historicity of anti-blackness and its continued legacy’. By focusing too quickly on hope, one disengages from the reality of the present, telling oneself ‘it will all be alright in the end’, all the while the violence continues. That said, it has also been argued that hope is the thing that will get us out the door and into the struggle, which is also valid. Perhaps humans need hope, but hopefulness must not be the end in and of itself.
I cannot speak of hope without thinking of a recent lecture given by George Yancy at the School of Criticism and Theory, a program which I coordinate each summer at Cornell University. Yancy began his lecture in 2021 by saying: ‘As counterintuitive as it may seem, in this talk, I will not leave you with much hope, especially as hope itself can function to support racial hegemony, various racial habits, and racial modes of being … If hope means doing more and more theory for the sake of theory, as Whiteness continues to dispose and yet consume Black bodies, rendering them abject, I say no thanks. We need a post-hope, which I see as a species of love that is desperate, where White people are now ready for the world to break up, now ready to lose their identities … to have one’s assumptions shattered, to have one’s sense of ethical, epistemological, phenomenological, embodied and affective certainty called into question, to have oneself touched to the point of vertigo, and perhaps even crisis. White people, as James Baldwin would say, must stand and confront history, do battle with forms of historical creation that have gotten us to this place, a place where Whiteness and White people refuse or fail to be undone.’