Nolan Oswald Dennis is interested in social fictions and how we use them to uphold, pursue, justify and gain a foothold in the world. His drawings, paintings and installations are reactionary works responding to history, our internal archival processes and collective memories. In his art, time is a significant feature, and yet even though he doesn’t yield a strong interest in photography, it’s pertinent that he cites The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950 by renowned photographer, Santu Mofokeng, as a work that continues to inspire him.
Santu’s photo album is a rich archive of private photographs of South African urban black working and middle-class families that is drawn from an ongoing research project of the University of the Witwatersrand. Ironically, for the most part, these images were privately commissioned with the intention of remaining in the personal domain. However, placing them in a public sphere reveals a salient side of our history that for too long was hidden in drawers, between book covers and aged envelopes only to be conveniently left out of colonial textbooks and erased by imperialist ideologies.
How did you come across the artwork?
I discovered the book at a book fair in Arles. My friend Molemo pointed it out to me.
What’s your impression of the artist?
Santu Mofokeng is king.
What strikes you most about it?
There is something really familiar but totally unreachable in the book. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house in uMlazi. I felt like there is something going on here which I will never be fully aware of. Its an object of mis-recognition.
Has it taught you anything about the medium or formal elements of art?
I never cared about photography before seeing this book. I still don’t really have a strong attraction to photography, except for the work of Santu Mofokeng and Thabiso Sekgala. I think the book really taught me the necessity of conceptual rigour; deep sensitivity to the meaning of things, objects, documents; critical research; and an intense self-love. The idea that an object is a key into a world that precedes and extends out from the object in very specific personal and political ways.
What do you admire about it?
Its quite a simple premise, a compilation of photographs black people have taken of ourselves in this country between 1890 and 1950, but with revolutionary personal and social consequences. We have old photographs but what are these everyday images a record of? What is a community of images? The photos make me feel like blinking, like there’s something in my eyes, some kind of fog between me and the work/world.
Why do you think it remains inspiring to you?
There are very few artists, or people in general, as fundamentally cool as Santu Mofokeng. Lol. The book is also an abused format. I think it’s inspiring because it is a necessary object and sensitively produced both conceptually and physically.
How would you describe it to someone who might never have the chance to see it?
Wait until its almost dark, press your palms on your eyeballs and rubs your eyes until you start seeing colours in the darkness. Then open your eyes, and try to see whatever is in front of you.