Ian Engelbrecht | Tripping Down Memory Lane

A generational relic found in so many South African homes is the ‘Kist’; a chest used for storing linens and clothes. In my childhood home it was used to store porcelain clowns and photo albums. Perhaps it was the nature of the contents, but our kist was rarely opened. The occasions on which it was, often involved the presence of family, and a stroll down memory lane.

Ian Engelbrecht, In the letters you did not read.


Ian Engelbrecht, a Cape Town based photographer discovered a trove of family photos in his family kist taken during Apartheid, which he has used to create  ‘Seed of Memory’. An on-going body of work focused on building the lineaments of what he calls a ‘fractured timeline’.

We all somehow long to reconnect to those parts of ourselves that feel both near and far. For Engelbrecht that territory is rather treacherous. As he explores it he sheds light on the unsavory, making it all the more complex. Healthy doses of digital manipulation breathe life into a bond Engelbrecht felt was missing to his culture. It’s not unusual for South Africans to feel a sense of displacement, however, it would be strangely evasive if we ignored an element of Engelbrecht’s work which develops several curious tensions that run throughout this photo-set. The obvious one being between the way the imagery renders a benevolent façade of fond memory, underlain by the nervous twitch associated with any positive notion of the totalitarian system of bygone South Africa, when these photographs were taken.

Kom haal my asseblief


Applying generous use of tongue-in-cheek asides, pastel hues and an overt sense of the binary Engelbrecht is magnifying; he seems to navigate his own way through borders he in turn sets up for himself in this exploration of his familial chronicles.

Harvesting photographs taken at the threadbare tail-end of the scramble for Africa, Engelbrecht attempts to reclaim the past in order to build out a personal connection to the history of South Africa not painfully rooted in the hideous brutality once practiced by Afrikaners. In one particularly poignant image, these ‘white ghosts of the past’ appearing almost Victorian, quietly manifest as watermarks in a photograph of a bare breasted Zulu girl before a thatch roofed building.

Melancholies vir die verlatenheid


Nationalist colours overlayed onto a composition of two figures recalls Athol Fugard’s play Master Harold And The Boys; it is through these imaginative manipulations of Engelbrecht’s archive that a personalised description of the actual facts of the case is revealed- that the ruling white family’s took road trips to the Drakensburg, passed time on the porch, brought the kids over on the weekend, documented birthday parties and farmsteads and inside jokes.

It is not unusual for contemporary Afrikaans photographers, drawing on their specific history as the oppressors in South Africa, to reach back into their past to pull back something positive which they can connect to. Not all attempts at this are so successful.

Roelof Petrus Van Wyk’s Jong Afrikaner series dabbles in recalling traditional anthropological lithographs and early photography by white colonists of black indigenous tribes to ‘catalogue’ his Afrikaner peers.  As a grandson of a staunch Apartheid grandfather, a simple role reversal played out on a black background does little to reconnecting me with my ‘tribe,’ or break the racial looking glass. 

Engelbrecht’s success with his build-out is due to the personal, familial nature of the content alone, further enhanced and touched by Engelbrecht’s imagination and longing for a cultural connection that mark the difference. Affording the viewer a sense of reprieve and relief from the past. Happy memories let loose to trickle, as little gold nuggets, in an old Transvaal stream.




Ian Engelbrecht (b. 1987, South Africa) is a photographer based in Cape Town, South Africa. After graduating from Rondebosch Boys High School, he attended The Ruth Prowse School of Art where he developed a love for the art of photography. Seed of Memory is an on-going body of work which he first developed in his final year at college. He describes the body of work as that of a journey, a passage through time from generation to generation, following members of his family as well as characters from the life and times. ”It’s a personal body of work which focuses on my outlining of a fractured timeline: a fragmented gimps, strange memories, thoughts and moments relating to my family and the life and times in which they lived. The work is solely related to South Africa.”

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Written by Kyle Tregurtha


South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy.


All images courtesy of Ian Engelbrecht. All rights reserved.


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