Standard Bank Gallery, Albany History Museum, National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa


Curator Michael Godby’s exhibition is a response to the challenge of showing Charles Bell’s 60 drawings of the War of the Axe in Grahamstown, the very territory that was fought over during the Wars of Dispossession, and to viewers, most of whom would have been constructed as the ‘enemy’ in Bell’s account of the war. The challenge is met in two ways. First, the drawings themselves are contextualised in a series of installations. Bell had been in Grahamstown before the war broke out adjudicating land claims relating to the 1820 settlers: display of contemporary surveying equipment and relevant maps will underline the point that first and foremost, this war was about the colonial acquisition of land. Similarly, Bell’s image of the Xhosa represents a significant change from earlier idealised views and is derived in large measure from contemporary racial theories that can be illustrated from books of the time. Such prejudices are also apparent in many of the newspaper reports of the war which will be reproduced as text panels in the exhibition. And installations of muskets and swords from the period will make the suggestion that Bell’s drawings were every bit as much an offensive weapon as the actual instruments of war.

The second part of the exhibition comprises recent representations of the War of the Axe and related Wars of Dispossession. These include new versions of historical events, by both black and white artists, that give a very different account of the wars. Other works isolate the pictorial language of colonial artists, notably steel engraving and perspective, to show how these elements are implicated in the colonial project. Other works again challenge the construction of masculinity inherent in Bell’s, and others’ accounts of the wars. And several works lament the tragic waste of life that occurred in these wars.

A voile panel from Paul Emmanuel's Lost Men Grahamstown anti-memorial was selected for this exhbition. This exhibition is made possible through the support of the John and Charles Bell Trust.


Exhibition views (2 photos)

Grahamstown National Arts Festival website

© Paul Emmanuel