ARH Framing the Beach 30th September 2014

17 Feb 2015 - 12:30

By Andrew James Hofmeyr

Africa Reading Humanities in conjunction with the Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA) were excited to host photographer Paul Weinburg, historian Glen Thompson and Meg Samuelson of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) English department in conversation with Deborah Posel. This seminar entitled Framing the Beach was held in conjunction with the World Design Capital 2014 events, specifically the Month of Photography and a photographic exhibition curated by Paul Weinberg and opened by Meg Samuelson at Casa Labia in Muizenburg entitled Beyond the Beach, which included an installation by Glen Thompson, “Fragments of surfing pasts”.

The three panelists of Framing the Beach share a love of both the shore and the sea. All are also surfers and this seminar gave them the opportunity to discuss the beach as a contested space with layers of meaning in a uniquely South African context. The beach is not neutral. It is not merely a space of recreation. Rather it acts as a melting pot of both people and cultures. The space where the surf meets the sand becomes a place where people mix under different social rules and constraints. Clothes are shed, young professionals mix side by side with families, beach-bums and surfers while, within sight but beyond the waves, industrial shipping and fishing boats pass by.

Glen Thompson at Casa Labia 2015

Glen Thompson’s work involves critical surfing studies and looks at the history of surfing culture in South Africa and how this culture is shaped by politics. For Glen, Muizenburg –positioned as it is between the city and the sea, the privileged southern suburbs and the Cape flats – provides particularly fertile landscape for research.

Meg too is interested in the beach as a shifting space. She describes our period as the coastal century where there is a surge of new meanings that become engendered through the beach space. The rise of tourism, Kodak-culture and surf culture all become indicators and signifiers of the change that has and is taking place both geographically and socially and which form part of the Anthropocene age. Paul, as a photographer, has worked all over South Africa and specifically on the littoral zone from St Lucia to Cape Town. As he documents his environment, his photographs build a pictorial record of the changing shape of the beach space. He describes with a wry smile how his position from behind the camera exposes him to the “extraordinary things that happen and how people view and celebrate the beach”.

Paul Weinburg speaking at Casa Labia 2014

It is a peculiar and exciting sensation to be confronted with something new and different. These three represent the pioneers of a new field of research that teases at the borders of our land-locked world. A historian, a literary and cultural critic and a photographer come together through this interdisciplinary field. Like the beach and the ocean itself, it offers exciting and challenging ways to think about our culture, our history and the ways that we interact through our shared environment. The beach represents a time and rhythm of a very different nature to that of industry and it is through examining this space that it becomes apparent that in some way, the beach represents not an escape from civilisation but a deep longing to return to a more natural rhythm. The discussion by this panel was intriguing, dynamic and paradoxical and serves as a wonderful platform to open up discussions for future research in a field that is new and very exciting.