Jong Afrikaner: A Self Portrait is an exhibition of photographic portraits currently on show at Commune 1 in Cape Town.
The title of the exhibition is loaded with ideological meaning. The Afrikaans term ‘jong’ translates as ‘young’. Being a ‘jong Afrikaner’ myself, the term evokes a complex set of conflicting feelings. To non-South African readers: Afrikaner is the term for the group of white Afrikaans speaking people living in South Africa. Even though we represent a minority group – in comparison to the much larger groups of Xhosa, Zulu and Bantu people (to name a few) – our heritage comprises an essential part of South African history. For one, the Apartheid regime is associated with Afrikaner people. The notorious term itself is derived from Afrikaans. This history and these kinds of negative connotations make it difficult for young Afrikaans speaking people, such as myself, to fully identify ourselves as ‘Afrikaners’.
A professor at the University I worked at shared a moving story of her experience of young Afrikaner students battling with the weight of their identities. The professor, herself having an Afrikaner background, noted that some of her students prefer to explicitly not to call themselves Afrikaners. This is what she presumed to be the majority, since she and many of her peers felt uneasy about identifying themselves with Afrikaner culture because of its historical associations. During a debate on nationalist culture, the professor posed the question: ‘How do you, as white Afrikaans speaking students, feel about calling yourself Afrikaners?’ (At the time, the professor was teaching in Pretoria – the capital of South Africa and a city that is often associated with a distinctive and typically Afrikaner community.) To her surprise, one of the students stood up and boldly said: Ek is ‘n Afrikaner – ‘I am an Afrikaner’. This was followed by another, and another. Soon, most of the students in the class were standing up, making the same proclamation.
This story moved me. I felt a similar sense of identification upon viewing Jong Afrikaner. Some of the portraits are of people I know – young open-minded people working in creative industries. By posing for Van Wyk’s lens, they unabashedly identified themselves as Afrikaners. The portraits are studies of human identification, bravery and broosheid (one of my favourite Afrikaans words that translates as ‘fragility’).
The body of work is not only moving because of its subject matter. The photographs are skilfully executed, with incredible attention to detail. All the portraits are diasec framed, giving the show as a whole a crisp ultra contemporary feel. The stances of the various young Afrikaners differ. Some are intensely staring at the camera; others are turned away, gazing into the distance. Gender stereotyped poses are not evident. I appreciate this. Men are also shown in stances that convey vulnerability, and, at times, women gaze assertively at the camera. The scale of the portraits allows viewers to appreciate the sharp-focused detail. A friend of mine was dismayed when a local newspaper reported that Van Wyk edited a ‘scar’ onto her cheek, only to find upon viewing the printed portrait that the ‘scar’ is indeed a thin sliver of blond hair on her cheek.
The very fact that I chose to write this piece in English instead of Afrikaans is a testament to the fact that many young Afrikaners choose to work and socialize in their second language (which is generally English). I am often upset about this, but unable to fully avoid it. I support Afrikaans culture as much as possible. I read the Western Cape’s Afrikaans newspaper, Die Burger, religiously. I support Afrikaans literature and theatre. I listen to a select few Afrikaans bands (unfortunately this list is limited, due to my distaste of the larger commercial Afrikaans music scene). To conduct day-to-day work activities solely in my mother language would mean to deny certain employment possibilities and opportunities to be recognized internationally. The choice to work in English instead of Afrikaans, of course, also denotes a denial of Afrikaner identity.
An exhibition such as Jong Afrikaner reclaims this identity in a positive way. It shows that despite its relation to a contested past, it is possible to create a renewed sense of Afrikaner identity. This is perhaps an overly ideological statement, but is one that lies close to home. The exhibition provides a mode of identification with a sense of integrity.