J. M. Coetzee’s Newly Discovered Apartheid-Era Photographs

Coetzee self portrait
"Who is this person? First steps toward surprising and uncovering his soul." (A young Coetzee's self-portrait, c. 1956)
by and © J.M. Coetzee (via Coetzee and The Irma Stern Museum)

While South African novelist and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee is best known for his fiction, he recently had a show celebrating his lesser-known creative work: his black and white photographs taken during his adolescence in apartheid-era South Africa. The photographs offer an intimate view of the writer and his upbringing.

Scholar Harald Leusmann analyzes J. M. Coetzee’s cultural critique of white, postcolonial, post-apartheid South Africa. He argues that Coetzee’s writing, often loosely autobiographical fiction, is important and even integral to understanding South African history. Leusmann notes that Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace “written after the demise of the apartheid regime…deals with the collective mood of present-day South Africa’s white population at the end of the dark twentieth century.” According to Leusmann, the author “forces his readers to look into abysses they do not really want to look into but are actually unable to turn away from anymore.”

The young Coetzee captured private moments at home with his family, along with significant events he happened to witness.

The exhibition of Coetzee’s previously unpublished photographs—many of which were never printed, only surviving as negatives until now—offers a similarly intimate look at apartheid South Africa, from the point of view of a white, Boer-English South African. The young Coetzee captured private moments at home with his family, along with significant events he happened to witness. One photo documents a white policeman pulling up to two black pedestrians; another photo from around 1955 immortalizes his family taking two black farmhands to the ocean for the first time.

Coetzee’s landscapes portray some of the same places he describes in his books. He spent time in the southernmost part of South Africa in Karoo, for instance, photographing the arid landscape. Later, he wrote about Karoo, where “there in the grandiose emptiness, the scattered islands of colonialism—the settlements of the white farmers—can be found.”

Through Coetzee’s literature, he “exposes layer by layer the nightmares South Africans must have and the mental deformations of and within a racist caste system.” As Leusman notes, Coetzee “is a white African in whose novels the country of apartheid and the postcolonial presence of South Africa are scrutinized in a clear and uncompromising light that makes sure no traces of injury and destruction can escape.” His photographs are similarly clear and uncompromising.

JSTOR Citations

J. M. Coetzee's Cultural Critique

By: Harald Leusmann

World Literature Today , Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Sep. - Dec., 2004), pp. 60-63

Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma

Ellen C. Caldwell

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and professor. She writes about visual culture, the arts, and popular media for publications including New American Paintings, KCET's Artbound, Riot Material, Desert Jewels, and more. Read more of her writing at eclaire.me.

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