In our current zeitgeist, the symbol of fire has become closely linked with the entangled legacies of exploitative capitalism, extraction, and climate change. By sheer coincidence, the Namibian-born artist Nicola Brandt (b. 1983) was photographing G.F. Watts’s bronze monument Physical Energy at the Rhodes Memorial site on the foothills of Table Mountain when the first plumes of smoke began to rise from the de vas tating fire that took place in Cape Town in April 2021.
Watts’s sculpture is a celebration of the legacy of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902). Its twin casts can also be found in London and Harare. The irony of the Table Mountain fires is that the colonial-era pine trees that encircled Rhodes’s former estate and the University of Cape Town’s main campus contributed to the partial destruction of several of the university’s buildings, including the Jagger Library. But, kept underground and salvaged in the blaze, was part of a collection of rare antiques, as well as documentation re la-ting to the Khoe-San / Khoisan, the original inhabitants of the area.
The stretch of seared earth below the escarpment of Devil’s Peak illustrates Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s call: “To know the world that progress has left to us, we must track shifting patches of ruination.” In how many ways can these archives and landscapes that remain in the aftermath be read “against the grain?” What new forms of knowledge and practices of care might emerge from the ashes?