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THE GROUP PORTRAIT (article first published : 2004-04-3)

The Group Portrait, South African Family Stories Exhibition tells the stories of South Africa through the lifestories of nine South African families. Curated by the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, the exhibition drew huge audiences in Holland last year. It will be on display for one year at the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria.

The exhibition deals with the history of the South African society in the last century. It does so in a special, unusual way. Instead of providing an overview of a complex history of a complex society, the exhibition takes the micro-approach. It tells the story of the country through the lives of nine real families, with different social, cultural, economical and geographical backgrounds. Their stories are followed, from the end of the 19th century, up till the present day.

The exhibition follows each family through successive generations. One or two members in each generation will lead the public through the ups and downs of their families, related to South African history. A teenager, who also expresses ideas about the future, will represent the last generation. So in each family a string of main characters is formed, drawing nine twisted lines through history.

Nine photographers and eleven artists have tackled the challenge of transferring this human, personal way of history writing, into an authentic and exciting three-dimensional exhibition. Around each family a separate team consisted of a writer/researcher, an artist, a photographer and a designer. In some cases a filmmaker has been added.

To complement the exhibition, Kwela Books in Cape Town and KIT Publishing Amsterdam have published Group Portrait. Richly illustrated with more than 200 images of the photographs and art works from the exhibition, as well as historical material, the book is available at all major bookstores.

Several families from KZN are featured in the exhibition.

The Nunns are a coloured family of mixed European-Zulu descent. The central figure is Cedric Nunn, a photographer, who has one daughter, Kathy (16), who is also interested in photography. One of Cedric’s great grandfathers was John Dunn, a legendary and colourful 19th century tradesman of English descent, living on the east coast, a one-time friend of Zulu King Cetswayo but who later fought against him. He wrote a diary, which was published in the 1880's. As a recognised and important Zulu-chief he owned a substantial part of land. Many Dunn-descendants are involved now into land-ownership disputes. Two other great grandfathers were English military men, Nunn and Nicholson, who were likewise involved in the Anglo-Zulu wars. The fourth was Piet Louw, an Afrikaner Boer. All of them married several Zulu wives, John Dunn the impressive number of 48! One grandmother of Cedric (the daughter of Nicholson) is 100 years old and lives isolated on a small old farm in KZN.

The Juggernath family is of Indian descent. Dhani Jiawon (1864-1928) from Faizabad in North India came in 1889 to Durban to work on the suger cane plantation of William Campbell. After a year he married Sundari, a widow and devoted Hindu, who had come to SA from a place near Poona. After the five-year indentured period they settled in Verulam where they lived until 1911 as farmers. Their six children were born there, the eldest was Juggernath who became a deeply religious man, and also involved in promoting educational possibilities of the Indian community. Among the descendants are Spider and Janey, both activists who were involved in several operations in the struggle. Spider ran running for election as a local councillor for the ANC in 2000. Janey is a teacher in a primary school and active member of SATU, the South African Teachers Union. There is a special but different relation of the family members to India and South Africa and aspects of Indian religion and culture, from an outward condemnation of backward traditions to respectful embracement.

The Mthethwa traces itself to Zonkezizwe Mthethwa, better known by his nickname 'khekhekhe'. Born in 1919, he is a well-known traditional healer or sangoma living in the area of Ngudwini. He receives his patients and trains some of his children but also others in the profession of sangoma. Khekhekhe stems of a long line of Mthethwa's, a prominent Zulu family, and claims to be a descendant of Dingiswayo, Shaka's mentor. Quite central among the houses of Khekhekhe’s compound is the burial ground where a few of his forefathers are buried. He is also the official history keeper of the Mthethewa's and the presence of the ancestors is very important in that respect. Every year on the 23rd of February there is a special ritual where Khekhekhe pays respect to the ancestors and recites their names.

Khekhekhe claims to have had 14 wives, of whom 7 are still alive. Among these 7 wives are three pair of sisters. He also claims to have close to a 100 children, which says a lot about his status and income as a widely known healer. His eldest son is Mfanawezulu, his eldest son, who works as a bus driver in Durban. Mfanawezulu married two wives, but divorced one of them. His third son, Qondokuhle, is a gifted guitar-player.

Among the other families featured are those of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje and Dolly Rathebe.

More information from the National Cultural History Museum on 012 324 6082, fax 012 328 5173 or e-mail: christor@nfi.co.za




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