KNOWING THE UNKNOWN
“It is necessary to strain one’s ears, bending
down toward the muttering world, trying to perceive the many images that have never reached the colours of wakefulness”.
Old age is a contemporary issue, but it is simply subverted by the dominance of youth culture. An inexcusable error in judgement, for the palette of life is diffuse and enduring.
My intention is to redefine the almost obscured, undocumented role elderly individuals play in South African life, to shift blind and submerged prejudice at the interface of old age. The first 12 environmental portraits - titled "Knowing the Unknown" series - were taken of residents at Luckhoff Old Age Home in the affluent suburb of Rondebosch, surrounded by objects of personal meaning in the living space of a room, with the corridor of an institution beyond. In the dementia ward, each has a desk-like armchair. Their identity is incoherent, and yet bonded to their loved ones by proxy. They appear to participate in a “bare life” in the same “state of exception” that James Sey, in his sobering essay The Black Asylum, applies to mental asylums and refugees (Sey, 2010; 45).
It is contrived not to recognise that, for some individuals with loving support, an old age home is a welcome safe and comforting space, but for those for whom it is not, it is a terrible alienation. The images are at once vulnerable, but, equally, are a space for each individual to assert themselves, their presence in the world in their declining years. For while they may be known to family, they are, in reality, isolated from the community.
The “Knowing the unknown” series, a study of individuality and mortality, is at once the (disavowed) potential experience of every one of us. With sufficient financial support to enter an old age home and have every need cared for - except, perhaps, life purpose - the subjects of this old age series is a thought-provoking contrast in juxtaposition with the "Grandmothers; holding the universe together" series (the next images in the portfolio).
The grandmother is a central figure in the disadvantaged townships of South Africa. She carries the burden of poverty most acutely, living on grants of perhaps R1500 per month. She typically has the responsibility of parenting young and school-going children – her grandchildren, many of whom are orphaned or who have absent parents - and of providing a loving environment and food on the table. For many of the youth, she is holding up the universe in their lives. Remarkable women, these grandmothers and their family all live with minimal resources, at the edge of survival, in small informal housing, and have to walk long distances to complete everyday demands despite the vulnerabilities of old age. Similarly the poverty of a township space is a dislocation, a form of denied access to the thriving world. And yet, undeniably, their life is still full of meaning, activity and community significance.
The declining years are marked with imperfect complexity, physical hardship and often mental deterioration, but invite a query of each individual’s lack of political and social power, and (ironically) inchoate identity as ‘old’ in the surrounding world. Whether enclosed in an old age home or insistently surviving in a township, these lives have a history, a consequence and an ephemeral present. And we have to question why, at our own reckoning, we leave them invisible and powerless in contemporary life.
Sey, J. 2010. The Black Asylum. the Johanesburg Salon, Vol 3. pp.45-50. Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism: University of the Witwatersrand
* This image was judged one of the winners in the international Life Framer competition Home from Home. Juror Marion Tande, Museum of Modern Art, New York.