Reminiscent of a well-crafted glossy advertising campaign, "Jong Afrikaner - A Self-Portrait" is a new book of photographs by Roelof Petrus van Wyk.
It contains colour portraits of white Afrikaans-speaking men and women, naked from the chest up and set against a black background. “I am these people,” says Van Wyk. All the subjects are close personal friends, who share his progressive Afrikaner values.
I first met Van Wyk last year at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where a snapshot of his Jong Afrikaner project was included in the Figures and Fictions exhibition of works by South Africa’s leading photographers.
In his photographs he examines and reflects on modern Afrikaner identity, issues of sexuality and reactions to the past.
One portrait is of rapper Yo-landi Vi$$er. “That little bottom lip that just pushes out, really, is your access to her spirit — that rebellious kicking against the grain. And that, as Die Antwoord, of course, finds massive expression.”
The women in his pictures are intelligent and in control, which he regards as a trait of Afrikaner women. “If you think 20 years ago what the role of the female was in apartheid, at home looking after the kids and serving her patriarchal husband, these girls are a world away from that.”
Llewelyn Roderick’s blue-grey eyes stare straight at the viewer from his portrait. Van Wyk says he was photographed shortly after treatment for a brain tumour.
Closer examination reveals the scar running down the side of his head and the cold sores on his lips, the result of chemotherapy.
With a little background knowledge the photograph becomes a study of quiet dignity.
Appearances can be deceptive. The public “have negative stereotypes already of Afrikaners. I can’t control that. I’m not doing a PR job for Afrikaners who are liberal and enlightened either. If it does that job, because these are creative
people who are engaging in Africa … if that creates a positive perception, then [that is] marvellous,” says Van Wyk.
Rebalancing the visual representation of Afrikaners “is something that happens by default”, he adds.
He protests that it is impossible, as an Afrikaner himself, not to examine their soul: “You can’t not engage in that line of thinking.” But then the book “is an art project … not an academic book,” he says.
Van Wyk is taking two gap years and studying for a master’s degree in London. He wants to work on his writing and think.
“I want to articulate these complexities, because I feel that most of the reviewers are just prescriptive in some sense and copy from press releases.
“I believe that an artist should be able to articulate intensely, intellectually, what their own work is all about.” And then when you come to making art again, “it helps to make you think about it more in textual terms”.
Instead of captions, the text is a pantomime written by Michiel Heyns to accompany the pictures. It is translated into English and Dutch “for various reasons, history as well as distribution”, Van Wyk says.
By challenging notions of the Afrikaner “as a racist conservative” Van Wyk is able to construct a different narrative to redefine himself and his people.
“That is the history, but perhaps this body of work can, at some point, address that and eke out some balance going forward. I think we have moved on.”
Jong Afrikaner — A Self Portrait launches at Exclusive Books Hyde Park, Hyde Park Corner, Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannnesburg on November 2 at 6.30pm. Roelof Petrus van Wyk will be in attendance for book signings