Photography – Empty Desire Lines: Cape Town under Lockdown

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Alex Oelofse (Cape Town)

Cape Town is a city of astonishing beauty and contradiction. It is tough, beautiful, relaxed and edgy in different proportions. Or at least, these are some of the impressions it might give to outsiders. Nestled in that wonderful vista of Lion’s Head and Table Mountain, stretching from surf to mountain scarp, it still combines the architecture of mixed modernity, from the Company Gardens to downtown marinas and mirror glass. If your trail takes you to Stellenbosch, as ours did when we lived nearby, you drive thru/past Khayelitsha, the informal housing that stretches for miles of tin, PVC and satellite dishes, and shebeens across the flatlands by the airport. A little further out there is the dormitory beach suburb of Strand and the dramatically segregated features of Somerset West, black one side of the freeway, white the other. As Ivan Vladislavić and others have observed, the history of place in this place can be read from its concrete divisions, Architecture After Apartheid and then post-apartheid. As Alex Oelofse shows in these remarkable photos, the natural beauty and colonial legacy is now framed from a height by the concrete grid first imposed by the apartheid state, and that which follows. Cape Town is a mobile city; walking, driving for those lucky enough to take safety in the refuge of their wheeled metal capsules, riding more perilously hanging on the back of a truck for the black urban poor, or pushing bicycles; the city thrives on activity. In these stills it is in fact still; the absence of actors, however defined and marked, is gobsmacking. The state-sanctioned lockdown confined the population indoors, or into hiding, living the radical diversity of lives that they otherwise would, in Cape Town, in isolation or proximity, falling ill and dying differentially. The god’s eye view by drone of this austere beauty leaves us wondering, in awe, of how life goes on the ground, and when it might return to its own version of normal. The concrete desire lines viewed from above make us long for the energy and pulse that run along the ground. We are grateful to Alex for his work, and for sharing it with us and our readers.

Peter Beilharz and Sian Supski (Melbourne),
Thesis Eleven editors


Alex Oelofselive lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a freelance photographer and videographer with a degree in Fine Art Photography from the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town. In 2017 his body of work Impermanent was exhibited in a solo show at the RK Contemporary Gallery in Riebeek Kasteel, as well as at the Smith Gallery, Cape Town. In 2018 he had his first international exhibition in Sweden at the Landskrona Foto Festival, followed by the Miami Art Week. His work features as part of the Zero-waste exhibition at the Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig for the German Department of Environmental Affairs. Instagram: @alex_oelofse website:

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