This accessible and erudite catalogue was based on a traveling exhibition first held at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown in July 2015 as part of the town's National Arts Festival. The first (and most substantial) part of the catalogue focuses on thirty-eight of the sixty drawings of the War of the Axe (1846–1847) produced by Charles Bell, a surveyor for the British administration at the Cape Colony and a self-taught artist. As Godby argues, this collection of pen and wash drawings form an “extraordinarily extensive record” of this landmark conflict in South African history. Indeed, colonial observers considered the drawings a veracious and authoritative account of the conflict—so much so that the Duke of Wellington consulted the drawings before giving a report to the House of Lords on the conduct of the war. However, as Godby illustrates, Bell's interpretation of the war was in fact highly partial, and his drawings served as propaganda that sought to justify the dispossession and subjugation of the African populations neighboring the Cape Colony; a project that Bell was himself complicit in through his role as a surveyor who adjudicated settler claims to land. Far from being a direct observer of the events he drew, Bell produced the somewhat haphazard collection of drawings in Cape Town, a comfortable distance from the battlefields of the Eastern Cape. He drew on eye witness accounts published in newspapers, sketches by military figures, and earlier drawings he had produced in and around Grahamstown prior to the War of the Axe.
Following a concise and helpful primer on the War of the Axe by historian Jeff Peires, Godby presents a series of digestible sections which seek to relate Charles Bell's drawings to a variety of historical contexts. In so doing, Godby attempts to rescue “Bell's drawings from a purely aesthetic discourse” (back cover) and expose the pernicious ideologies behind them, whilst also allowing the possibility for an appreciation of the aesthetic and technical merits of his work, despite the shameful history to which they belong. Many of these sections cover general aspects of colonial visual culture that have long been familiar to art historians, such as the influence of nineteenth century racial theory and phrenology on figural representation, but their inclusion remains necessary given the wider audience that this catalogue—and the exhibition—address. Sections which prove more novel and engaging to scholars include those where Godby explores how some of Bell's drawings were reproduced and circulated within publications such as The Illustrated London News (reminding us of the imperial networks to which colonial artists of the nineteenth century belonged) and the section contextualizing Bell's representations of liberated slave, Cape Muslim, and “Mfengu” soldiers who participated in the War of the Axe. Also notable is section 8, which looks at the shifting representations of Xhosa-speaking communities and individuals throughout twentieth century colonial art, and specifically the shift away from romanticized images towards denigrating representations, reminds us of the wider trajectories of colonial artistic practice in which Bell's drawings are situated. This shift was fueled in part by colonial hunger for land and the increasing valuation of Africans as labor units, and is illustrated with reference to the artists Samuel Daniell (1775–1811) and Thomas Baines (1920–1875), as well as Charles Bell. Overall, Godby skilfully deconstructs any lingering status of objectivity Bell's drawings might otherwise enjoy by carefully presenting the images alongside well-researched historical information.
This section is followed by a series of illustrations of historical weapons used in the Frontier Wars (1779–1879), with accompanying notes by Rod Hooper-Box, which emphasize the material realities of warfare and the militarized and violent nature of the colonial society to which Bell belonged. In the next and final part of the catalogue, Godby turns his attention to recent representations of the Frontier Wars by contemporary artists and photographers, which draw on a range of artistic practices and intellectual devices that differ markedly from the saber-rattling jingoism that underpinned Bell's ostensibly objective drawings. Godby's selection of artworks is wide-ranging, and his observations are organized into four thematic groups, namely, land/landscape, battle, memory, and legacy. In the first, Godby explores how contemporary artists have both engaged with and subverted common conventions of landscape representation and in doing so have highlighted how such representation has in the past been used to legitimate the colonial appropriation of land in South Africa. For example, Christine Dixie's Mortgage Bond (1997) sees a woodcut of picturesque landscape printed upon a nineteenth century mortgage bond issued in Cape Town; an aesthetic and rhetorical device that invites consideration of the nexus among land, landscape, and property. This thesis is similar to the argument put forward by Godby in his previous exhibition catalogue, The Lie of the Land (2010), and some of the artists referenced in this section also received attention in that catalogue. However, this argument is given fresh life through the inclusion of more recent artistic projects, such as a selection of photographs in Cedric Nunn's series Unsettled: One Hundred Years of Resistance by Xhosa against Boer and British (2012-), which, refreshingly, are presented with minimal commentary, allowing space for readers and audiences to engage with Nunn's photographs and captions relatively unburdened by an over-determined curatorial message.
Following this section, Godby explores contemporary representations of battle, which are notable for the way in which they eschew the heroic tone of the earlier genre of history painting, and instead convey the brutality and tragedy of the Frontier Wars. The final two sections explore the aftermath of these conflicts from two discrete angles, namely, in terms of traumatic memory and in terms of their legacies (as manifested, for example, in contemporary configurations of identity and in the ongoing difficulties of reconciliation). Godby is to be applauded for making this distinction, rather than simply collapsing memory, history, and trauma into one another. The stand-out artwork from these two closing sections of the catalogue is Athi-Patra Ruga's tapestry Invitation … Presentation … Induction (2013). Godby's provocative interpretation of this work is that it mixes utopic and dystopic elements (including allusions to the Frontier Wars) in order to express multiple configurations of identity that need not necessarily be determined by South Africa's past history and divisions.
It should be noted that this book is not aimed exclusively at a scholarly audience, and readers expecting lengthy or radically new interpretations of Bell's art, or of the use of South African history as a subject matter in contemporary art, might, on first glance, be disappointed. However, the originality of the catalogue lies in bringing the work of Charles Bell into relation with the work of contemporary artists, and this contrast allows Godby to make a number of discerning observations that will be of value to scholarly audiences. Furthermore, its concise and accessible tone is appropriate considering the sensitivities of exhibiting such work in Grahamstown, a town established as a military outpost in 1812 that was of strategic importance in the Frontier Wars. Overall, this generously illustrated catalogue engages and educates a broad audience about the historical contexts that shaped the work of colonial artists, and invites reflection on their ongoing reverberations in culture and society.