4 - 5 August, 2016 | FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg


Sharing intimate spaces and stories – making them habitable in public – may be a way of breaking down distances between people in the imaginative realm that … cross[es] over into the realm of physical space, potentially opening up new ways of thinking and feeling as well as moving, acting and relating to others. (Bystrom 2013:334).

Revealing inner lives … blurs common boundaries between public and private through a kind of spatial itinerancy, where things perceived to be properly confined to the home or domestic life surface in public spaces and become knitted into public discussions around these surfacings.” (Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:316).

In their discussion around the interconnected relations between private lives and public cultures in contemporary South African society,[1] Kerry Bystrom and Sarah Nuttall (2013) use the term “intimate exposures” to describe “a set of diverse acts that involve revealing inner aspects and places of the self and self-making”. Such ‘intimate exposures’, as manifest through what VIAD is calling ‘personal surfacings’ (specifically artifacts found in domestic interiors[2] and/or associated with ‘style-fashion-dress’[3]) are intertwined with the public and political realms, and, as such, can work to shape, or to at least recognise the presence of multiple public-private spheres, which in turn forges forms of subjectivities not allowable to be expressed under South Africa’s history of segregation. (Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:308, 310).

From 4-5 August 2016, the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) Research Centre is hosting a Roundtable titled Intimate archives // autobiographical acts, in which Intimate exposures, as manifest through personal surfacings in the domestic interior and style-fashion-dress, are explored as a means of expressing creative agencies. This thematic feeds directly into VIAD’s conceptual focus for 2014-2020, namely, ‘Personal addresses, creative agencies and political resistances in the post-colony’. Of particular interest is how intimate exposures – acts of self-exposure or exposure of the private lives of others in the public realm (Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:310) – as they are manifest in creative or everyday cultural practices, is routed through, performances of the self and the articulation of personal experiences, stories and images as well as private or interior spaces in which subjectivity gets shaped; [an intimate exposure] focuses on and circulates through feeling and affective life; it is profoundly invested in objects, commodities or ‘things’; it is about movement and mobility; it tends to embrace vulnerability, risk and recombination rather than following a predetermined aesthetic or political arc. (Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:308).

At the Roundtable, the installation-based exhibitions by UK-based Black British artists Michael McMillan and Christine Checinska, respectively titled The Front Room ‘Inna Jo’burg’ and The Arrivants (FADA Gallery, 30 July-28 August), form a departure point for engagement with this thematic. In conversation with the artists and their work, the Roundtable provides a space where articulations of personal surfacings are brought to the fore through private narratives, oral histories and affect. For example, as an instance of spatial itinerancy, McMillan’s staging of a recreated African-Carribean front room offers a form of personal surfacings that enables members of the public to enter into the privacy of a living space, or as Meg Samuelson (cited by Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:316) puts it in relation to a different context, imaginatively (and in this case, physically), “[walk] through the door and [inhabit] the house.” Here, the domestic interior – a space historically gendered as feminised – is exteriorised and made visible in the public realm of the gallery. In a gesture of hospitality, the artist welcomes the viewer into the personal space of his childhood, in which his emotions, memories and familial histories are embedded. In so doing, he invites the viewer to find and experience points of relation to and identification with their own lived-experiences.

With the recent turn in South Africa academia towards examining ways in which colonial structures in institutional spaces might be decentered, participants in Intimate archives // autobiographical acts consider how personal surfacings, as manifest in points intersection between private and public institutions – and specifically the institutions of the home and/or fashion-style-dress – can be read both as expressions of the self/private experience and public/collective histories/narratives. In speaking to processes of personal surfacings, participants engage with wider discussions around the role that artifacts, and the ways in which they are arranged or combined, play in shaping senses of the self, and examine how personal surfacings can be used as a form of expression that involve processes of making and remaking of identities and subjectivities in relation to particular temporal, geographic, socio-economic and political contexts. Such forms of expression can be consciously or subconsciously enacted and, crucially, critically read as assertions of creative agency.[4] Creative agencies may be read in terms of the ways in which creative and cultural practitioners[5] engage, play with, uphold, or reinforce prevailing global North-western normative (sexuality, age, race, gender, class) constructs. They may also be considered in light of ways in which they are used to negotiate, subvert, and/or resist the same prevailing dominant constructs, thereby highlighting the workings of, and questioning, the power-relations that these constructs embody. These processes are positioned as a form of “relational politics” (Hunter 2015), producing newly configured subjectivities through the artifacts they choose to accumulate as personal and intimate archives.

The Roundtable is focused on the work of creative and cultural practitioners that set up encounters using material culture as a means to express personal narratives. The enmeshing of these components may evoke associations and memories, and spark points of sameness and difference between colonial and post-colonial contexts, which potentially reveal an multiply contingently attached sense of being-in-the world.

Key themes in Intimate archives/autobiographical acts include, but are not limited to:

Personal surfacings through material culture as a means of self-expression

  • How identities, subjectivities and personal/collective histories are expressed through artifacts that carry emotional, cultural, religious, political values and attachments.

  • Ways in which artifacts can trigger affect: personal and/or collective memories, sentiments and emotions.

  • Ways in which artifacts serve to remind and preserve traces of particular relationships, imaginaries and histories, as invested them by the owner.

  • Why and how artifacts are stored and collected. In addition to the invocation of memory; collecting intimate archives can be a means to “connect with others; define the self and the family; fulfill obligations and, conversely to efforts of remembering, to safely forget”. (Kirk & Sellen 2010).

  • Style-fashion-dress as a means of breaking down divisions between the public and private.


Self-expression through material culture as a form of creative agency

  • How artifacts can be used a form of ‘speaking when one has no voice’; to articulate notions of personhood, visibility and self-respect; and as a means of conveying visual narratives of respectability: self-assurance; self-confidence, dignity, social standing and prestige.

  • Instances in which personal surfacings can be read as a means to negotiate, challenge and/or assert a form of independence from colonial, western images of dehumanisation, degradation, objectification and disempowerment.

  • Deploying personal surfacings as a means of countering erasure/invisibility/re-orderings of identity during periods of European colonialism; Imperialism and apartheid.

  • Can, and if so, how, do personal surfacings assert, uphold, unsettle or counter normative racial, cultural and gendered practices?

  • Relationships between material culture, modernity and urbanisation.

  • Adapting and transforming artifacts that have colonial origins as a means of negotiating shifting forms of identity (cross-cultural exchanges).

  • The nexus of respectability, aspiration, and social prestige within the consumptive economies of high capitalism and neoliberalism.

  1. Personal surfacings as articulated through oral history, memory and voice

  • Material culture as “part of the process of self-telling, that is, to expound an aspect of autobiography of oneself through narratives” (Tulloch 2010:276).

  • How personal or auto-ethnographic narratives might work to counter, offer alternatives to, or address ommisions in, accounts contained in officially sanctioned historical archives.

  • Use of personal narratives as a means of revisiting and reframing fractured histories; experiences and expressions of immigrant dis-location and re-location or dispossession.

  • Ways in which personal surfacings are used a means to reflect, explore and articulate narratives of adaptation and belonging; trauma; memory and loss.

  • Use of personal surfacings as a means of reclaiming personal and collective histories with a sense of ownership and pride and/or as a means of articulating respect for family values, cultural heritage and tradition.

  • Engagement with, influence of, reference to, and forms of playing with, the fragile and seductive nature of archival imagery (sentimentality, romanticisation, nostalgia) in the re-telling of personal/collective narratives.

Sources cited

Bystrom, K. 2013. Johannesburg interiors. Cultural Studies 27(3):333-356.Bystrom, K and Nuttall, S. 2013. Introduction. Private lives and public cultures in South Africa. Cultural Studies 27(3):307-332.Kaiser, SB. 2012. Fashion and cultural studies reader. London/New York: Berg.

Kirk, DS and Sellen, A. 2010. On human remains: values and practice in the home archiving of cherished objects. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact 17 (3), July. [O]. Available: Accessed 17 June 2016.

McGregor, L and Nuttall, S. 2007. Foreword. At risk: writing on and over the edge of South Africa, edited by L McGregor & S Nuttall. Johannesburg: Johathan Ball:9-13.

Nuttall, S and Michael, CA. 2000. ‘Autobiographical acts’ in Senses of culture: South African culture studies, edited by S Nuttall & CA Michael. Cape Town: Oxford University Press:298-317.

Tulloch, C. 2010. Style-fashion-dress − from black to post-black. Fashion theory: Journal of dress, body and culture 14(3):273-304.


[1] As Bystrom (2013:336) notes, post-1994, South African academic and public interest in, and cultural production around, domestic, family, and private life has grown due to the shift in emphasis from ‘the’ collective struggle towards examinations of selfhood through focus on personal and subjective experience. As Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall (cited by Bystrom 2013:336) point out, narratives about personal, intimate or interior expression had their genesis in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1996, which placed private experience and testimony firmly within the public realm. From this point onwards, a set of first-person narratives or “autobiographical acts” (Nuttall & Michael 2000) emerged within the cultural sphere (Bystrom & Nuttall 2013:310). These narratives present a

”groundswell of personal stories … [of] candid, intimate voices’ that replace the grand narratives of apartheid with a proliferation of micro-narratives …”. (McGregor & Nuttall cited by Bystrom 2013:336).

[2] Personal surfacings include the domains of the domestic and fashion-style-dress, as well as elements that these domains comprise, such as furniture, objects, images, photographs, décor, ornamentation, items of clothing and textiles.

[3] According to Susan Kaiser (2012:1), “Fashion is … about producing clothes and appearances, working through ideas, negotiating subject positions (such as gender, ethnicity, class), and navigating through power positions.” ‘Dress’ is a more neutral term used in global fashion theory to describe the traditional, symbolic, or functional use of clothing (Kaiser 2012:7). Carol Tulloch (2010:276) considers style as a form of agency “in the construction of self through the assemblage of garments, accessories, and beauty regimes that may, or may not, be ‘in fashion’ at the time of use”. Tulloch (2010:274) proposes the articulation of style-fashion-dress as a system that can be broken down into part- and whole- relations between the individual terms and the system that connects them. (Kaiser 2012:7). Following Tulloch, the term ‘style-fashion-dress’ is used here to denote articulations of the style-fashion-dress system; a complex of shifting concepts that signifies the multitude of meanings and frameworks that operate within the ‘whole-and-part’ schema.

[4] Forms of expression as assertions of creative agencies are dependent on readings in which they are positioned as such. Furthermore, these enactments and readings depend on how, by whom, and from which positionalities they are enacted, read and received.

[5] These creative and cultural practitioners may encompass individuals, collectives and sub-cultural groups that assert forms of creative agency as part of their daily lived experiences and/or group identities, as well as visual/performance artists and fashion-designers, amongst others, working across a range of interdisciplinary genres and media.



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