Bulhoek 1921 (oil on canvas, 38cm x 152cm, 2014)   

Cobus van Bosch

The Trouble with Memory

The human condition in an ever changing South Africa over more than 100 years is the focus of this series of oil paintings.

Under the title The Trouble with Memory Van Bosch investigates, mainly through portrait painting, what appears to be the psychological impact of often turbulent times on people. The images, converted from black and white photographic material to paintings in muted colour, hark back to as early as the Langeberg rebellion of 1897 near Kimberley, the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), indentured Chinese labour on the Rand (early 1900’s) and portraits from Rehoboth (1913) to the Bulhoek uprising of 1921 and the Marikana massacre of 2012. 

Looking at images from the past, especially people, always brings up the complex matter of memory, Van Bosch explains. Not only is it selective, but it fades and loses context over time. Even explanations and understandings of events as recent as the Marikana massacre are still hotly debated in the media, the courts and before boards of enquiry. 

It also seems that the past is ever changing, he says. Even firsthand witnesses do not have the full picture of an event, and each has a slightly, or completely, different story to tell. Historians constantly come up with new perspectives on events. It is the purpose of their research. Therefore, a contemporary account of the Boer War is very different from one during, or directly after, the war. 

Then there is the fact that a very small percentage of people, those still alive, that is, actually have real memories of specific events. Most of us simply were not there. We know or “remember” events, even very recent ones, mainly through reports by friends or media, or interpretations by researchers, in any case nearly always tainted by those motives that interested them in the topic in the first place.

The aim of Van Bosch’s pictorial research is therefore not primarily to refresh “memories” of events, or to provide a history lesson in the traditional sense of the word. He systematically searched through archives and libraries, looking for what he describes as “arresting portraits” rather than images that define major events. His choice of subjects is thus subjective, and the resulting body of work cannot be seen as a report other than that of his own emotional response to what he found. 

So, do we remember or reflect when we look at the past? Many of the subjects in The Trouble with Memory certainly portray reconisable emotions, but what to ascribe that to, is difficult. It is after all shaped by their own, fallable memories of experiences, perhaps totally unrelated to the interpretations we have of events a century later. Still, contexts such as “prisoner”, “leper”, “riot”, “massacre", etc. give clues to events which undoubtably must have had a psychological impact on those living at the time. How we make sense of these images relies mostly on the most poignant aspect of our own memories of things - we may have trouble with recalling the details, but seldom its psychological effect.

Click on thumbnails to enlarge

Workers on strike


Chiefs in Sunnyside

Chinese mineworkers




Chinese mineworkers

British settler

Chinese mineworkers

Hendrik Witbooi

C. van Heerden

J. du Plessis

F. van Heerden

Irene concentration camp

Washer women

I. Viljoen

A. Haugh

G. Malan

Rehoboth girls



Rehoboth men


Foster cave

Workers on strike 



Workers on strike 

Workers on strike 

Dr Fischer's Models
Dr Fischer’s Models is a series of portraits of women from the Namibian town of Rehoboth. These oil paintings are inspired by an early 20th century study by Dr Eugen Fischer (1874-1967), the infamous German professor of anthropology and eugenics. In 1913 he published the book Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen (The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation among Humans). The book includes many remarkable photographs of Rehoboth men, women and children, which Fischer used to illustrate his ideas on race. It is unlikely that these people, many wearing their Sunday best, were clear about what they were posing for, given the title of the study. Still, a curious mix of vulnerability, pride and distrust radiates from many of these portraits, taken shortly after the Bondelswart and Herero Rebellions that mark the last years of German occupation of Namibia. Today, as before, the Rehoboth Bastards are very proud of their heritage, and their very existence today serves to undermine Fischer’s theories.

Anna Diergaart

Helena Vries

Eva Vries 

Ms Vrey

Frida Johr


Sophia van Wyk

Emilie Johr 

Maria Vries

Lisbeth Slenger

Sara Koopman 

Kath Vries