Messina/Musina and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa, 2006 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town & Yossi Milo, New York.
South African photographers have caught the world's attention and are now being recognised as some of the most exciting and inventive artists at work. BJP talks to some of them as the V&A Museum welcomes them in a comprehensive exhibition
The weight of South Africa’s past lies heavy on its present, a burden its photographers cannot ignore. And yet, in their attempt to make sense of post-apartheid society and devise new approaches to its complexities, the dynamism and urgency of these photographers has caught worldwide attention, and they are now being recognised as some of the most exciting and inventive artists at work. Lucy Davies travelled to South Africa to meet a handful of them ahead of the V&A’s exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography.
In Portrait with Keys, Ivan Vladislavic’s collection of loosely stitched, non-fiction encounters with the city of Johannesburg, the narrator imagines a map. At the time he is travelling westwards across the urban grid in a car with his friend Louise, past the house on Isipingo Street in the suburb of Belleville where the writer Herman Charles Bosman murdered his step-brother in 1926. “People should be made aware of this historic site,” says Ivan, and conjures in his mind a palimpsest to represent the city’s history, where “every violent death… above ground and below, by axe and blade and bullet” is marked on a map. It will form, he says, “a title deed to despair… cross-stitched in black, crumpling under the weight of sorrow as you struggle to unfold it on the dining room table”.
There is no question that the weight of South Africa’s past lies heavy on its present. Its collective memory has the butting insistence of the head of an animal that needs to be fed. The public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were first to map the ancient violations and prejudices for a post-apartheid generation, but in recent years these histories – and I use the plural because they are not always concordant – have been inscribed, reinterpreted, reappropriated, veiled and enacted by an exceptional number of photographers.
This month, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London will exhibit a selection of works from this new visual landscape, in a show titled Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (12 April – 17 July). Just 17 photographers were pulled from the stream by co-curators Tamar Garb and Martin Barnes, via a series of stringent criteria designed to illuminate the tense relationship South Africa has had with the depiction of its people. All the work has been produced over the past decade by practitioners living and working in South Africa, and all of it foregrounds a self-conscious engagement with the country’s distinct political and photographic past. Their voices are young and strong, capable, Barnes believes, “of holding their own on the worldwide market”.
The dynamism and urgency of the photography in this area of the world is partly explained by the talented educators and astute curators there, and their mutually supportive dialogue. On home soil the medium’s reputation has grown largely through the persistence of its flagship commercial galleries, the Goodman Gallery and Michael Stevenson in Cape Town, and Goodman and Brodie/Stevenson in Johannesburg. Their vigorous programme of solo exhibitions and book publishing have propelled a number of photographers to worldwide attention, including Pieter Hugo and Zwelethu Mthethwa, whose work has recently been selected to join the J Paul Getty collection.
Untitled (from The Brave Ones series) © Zwelethu Mthethwa. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Opportunities for photographic education have also expanded substantially in the past 20 years and chief among these has been the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt in 1989, which offers a system of bursaries for disadvantaged students. Many of the photographers in the V&A exhibition are its alumni, and several continue to offer their services as mentors.
Shadow of apartheid
Human figures haunt this show, acknowledging the mass of South African photographers choosing people as their subject. The curators have ordered the work via three ways of seeing – portraiture, documentary and ethnography – which have infused photographic practice since the camera first arrived on the Cape in 1842.
Early tensions between the factual/fictive uses of the camera became profound when enlisted as a tool of domination. Photography isolated the differences between settler elite and colonised subject, harnessing a visible order to the encounter. The dynamic was stark: superiority, arrogance and certainty on one side; suspicion, resignation and resistance on the other. “Very few images of the period were commissioned by black people or made for a black audience,” the curator Michael Stevenson writes in Surviving the Lens. “Black people were generally only photographed in their roles on the fringes of the white ruling class, as nursemaids, servants, wagon drivers.”
By the middle of the following century, a raft of other issues entered the fracas when a white electorate, alarmed by the collapse of British rule in India the previous year, voted the Afrikaner-dominated National Party into governance. Whites and blacks had long lived separate lives in South Africa, but new legislation placed rural African families in “native” reserves, and segregated living, working and recreational spaces within cities. A pertinent photograph by David Goldblatt looks down on a convoy of Humber cars travelling north to the white suburbs of Johannesburg, while black workers stream home on foot in the other direction.
As the noose tightened, all aspects of vision were infected. The propaganda apparatus pumped out pictures insisting blacks were willing collaborators of white trusteeship. Images of Mandela were banned, lest they become a spur to subversion, and as late as the 1980s, the regime continued to exercise control over what the people could see on television. Writers and photographers learnt “to wiggle and squiggle”, in Goldblatt’s words. A whole genre of counter-culture images detailing police brutality and public protest fizzed into being between the cracks, burrowing forcefully into the international media.
Palisa, 2009 © Sabelo Mlangeni. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson Cape Town.
Santu Mofokeng, who began his photographic career in a newspaper darkroom, sweeping up discarded negatives, gained an inside view: “I learnt a lot in that darkroom,” he says, “mainly that black skin and blood make a beautiful contrast”. By the 1990s “Struggle Photography”, as it came to be known, had become insidious and flag and fist images came to define the country in ways that took little heed of long-term implications. The stereotype of “the black body in state of abjection” as defined by the historian John Peffer, came to stand for the South African experience, robbing black South Africans of authority over their own images exactly as ethnographic coding had done a century earlier.
As photographer Graeme Williams says: “What I hadn’t foreseen was how seductive and all-consuming photographing violence can be. How it is extremely difficult to remain objective. I lost my sense of balance, and got too involved. In 1994, when Mandela was inaugurated, I sat at home with my pager turned off, and that was the end of it. It took a while to detox.”
Mofokeng was one of the first to shift his photographic aesthetic, trying to “expose the lived reality that most photographers, in their rush for marketable struggle photographs had failed to see… the fact that these people were like other people and simply wanted the same things”. His project Black Photo Album/Look at Me, rescued early family portraits of black families from oblivion. “I thought, what kind of images do people, even poor people, make for their walls? Weddings, celebrations, look how happy we are, look at my food, look at my house. Then I looked at the images that get published in the newspaper. I began to create a counter archive that would fight the clichés surrounding black photography.”
For the past 15 years he has also employed a deliberate blur in his images, aimed at countering the cipher of the black body. Chasing Shadows, a series he began in the mid-1990s and which preoccupied him for nearly a decade, is an extraordinary example. The images record religious services at the Motouleng caves near the border with Lesotho, which Mofokeng first visited with his late brother Ishamel when the latter was diagnosed with HIV. Intended to explore spirituality via its rituals, costumes and gestures, they are lit only by open fires and candles, sometimes raking sunbeams, and have the appearance of a dream world. Forms dissolve in smoke or are blurred by movement in the low light conditions. “How to render the invisible visible and the visible invisible; what is seen and what is not seen in a landscape. I play with those things.”
When he finally felt able to pick up his camera again, Williams travelled around with books by Antonin Kratochvil and Paolo Pellegrin in the boot of his car, looking at them endlessly to try to “entice myself to look beyond conventional ways”. He was one of several photographers to find solace in colour film. “Black-and-white fitted the gritty, grubby side of apartheid. It felt almost sacrilegious to do something so flighty as to photograph in colour,” he says.
The Minister of Finance, 2009 © Kudzanai Chiurai. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
Mthethwa also came to colour, “to restore the dignity of my subjects”. The series chosen for the V&A show depicts Shembe children in their religious costume in the Kwa-Zulu Natal landscape. On a very basic level they mimic the early ethnographic stereotype, but their strident yet comfortable pose also subverts this tradition, and they seem to own the space entirely.
Where things get really interesting, however, is in their costume. Invented by the original Shembe family, it is a fanciful mix of kilts and rugby socks, bow ties and pith helmets. Garb calls this a “scrambling of sartorial codes”, and we see it again in the political parodies of Kudzanai Chiurai, when he pulls elements of hip hop into the inherited tradition of African studio portraiture. It’s also apparent in Sabelo Mlangeni’s portraits of cross-dressers in the rural landscapes of the Mpumalanga province, the garble of bin bag and red cape and Mickey Mouse shirt worn by Pieter Hugo’s Honey Collector. It achieves its most resplendent form in the street portraits of Nontsikelelo Vekelo. Her heroes appear in carefully chosen retro pieces from an international wardrobe, picturing a pride that has little to do with an outsider’s idea of South African identity.
“Culture is always evolving,” says Mthethwa, “and this is about playing different roles… On the one hand you’ve got the assertion of a life lived, which one can assert as a fact, and on the other hand you have the elaborate ruses, disguises, fictions and narratives that coalesce around the figure.”
The responsibility entailed in negotiating these fictions and narratives remains a burning issue for many of the photographers. Twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop exercise a practice that Garb describes as “ethnography from within”. As Capetonians originating from District 6 (the area from which some 60,000 “coloured” persons, mostly Malay Muslims, were forcibly ejected during the 1970s and rehoused in outlying areas to the east of the city), their work originates from a very specific standpoint. Their chief preoccupation is the space the figure of Islam negotiates in a secular environment. “Art is about your beliefs,” says Husain. “So for us it had to be about religion.”
Night Before Eid, 2009 © Hasan & Husain Essop. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
The world they create is a surreal one. They admit to having been dazzled by Dali and the Dadaists as art students, but its visual idiom is pure, shiny pop. “It became about how the media seduced us,” they say. “We love Hollywood at the same time as we hate Hollywood.” They are mindful of the restrictions on picturing the figure that Islam imposes. Rather than enlist the bodies of others to their task, they use only their own, photographing themselves as many as 45 times to create digitally stitched tableaux.
The work is predominantly autobiographical but it also engages with wider phenomena, circling questions of origins and belonging and the experience of living in liminal spaces. Not only is the area their community occupies in Cape Town a liminal one, but as young Muslims their religion occupies an uneasy space under the constant scrutiny of the media and contemporary politics. “We are Capetonian, we are of Indian descent, we are Muslim and we are South African,” they say. “There are so many identities within us… The work comes out of all of that.”
A similar concept comes to the fore with Pieter Hugo, who explores the margins between known and familiar, self and other, transience and permanence, as well as the physical borders of his native country. His series Permanent Error, Hyena and Other Men and Honey Collectors took him as far from home as Nigeria and Ghana on difficult journeys to photograph troubled subjects. “My eye is drawn to the extremities of the human condition,” he says. “Of course that’s problematic; in no way is this an accurate scope. But as photographers is it our responsibility to do that? I don’t think so. I’m exploring my relationship with South Africa; what it was like growing up as a white South African in this very strange, complicated place.”
Sibu IV, 2003/2006 © Nonstikelelo Vekelo. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
Issues of power struggles lie heavy in his work, whether it’s the geopolitics between the First and so-called Third Worlds, between man and animal, or man and environment. “The way power is played out in photographs is complicated,” he says. “I always have people look at me, I want the same intensity and inquisitiveness that I use to look at them.”
For his series Messina/Musina, he explored a northern outpost of South Africa, on the border with Zimbabwe. The title bears witness to the colonial and post-colonial naming of a town that is, today, little more than an ugly interruption to bleak, scrub-desert landscape. In among a number of portraits of its citizens are images of animal cadavers and mannequins, offering an almost theatrical view of this motley town. One of most potent is the family grouping Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phiswa [see top image]. The white Vermeulens, sat either side of their black ward, are shown scarred by their battle with the African landscape – she by the cancer scabs on her nose; he by an amputated leg, lost in an accident on the railways. Hugo intends that their experiences stand for a something more formal: “Even though as surrogate parents to a black child they’ve found a kind of integration, for me they also represent the colonial encounter. The landscape has not been kind to them. They are colonial driftwood. But it is important that I don’t tell you that outright, I want it to be more poetic.”
In the city
One cannot chart the “trauma” – and this word crops up in almost every conversation – that has befallen South Africa, without considering the city of Johannesburg. Its dense urban weave and uneasy collocations have been the inspiration for six of the photographers in the show, who have variously tapped into its strange hierarchies and fractious, overlapping realities.
It is hard to gain purchase on this city, which seems to have no centre and no recognisable skyline. Many of its inhabitants do not possess the basic structure of what we in the West regard as an inhabitable, bearable life. Today’s inner city is a melange of non-national African immigrants, refugees, poor and working class South Africans, who live in derelict office buildings with no running water. It has become a cliché to talk of crime, but it is rife, and it affects every soul in the city, from the rich living behind enclosure walls in the northern suburbs to the homeless in the south, who hide their clothes under manhole covers. Security guards, guns, gates, razor wire and shutters are the city’s chief insignia.
Several photographic projects have coalesced around this issue, not least Subotsky’s Becher-like catalogue of the Wendy houses that act as offices for those guarding the properties of the rich. In one of these images, the contrast between the huge arched gable of the house, just visible behind the wall, and its diminutive plastic copy below, is painful and laughable in one breath. Subotsky also pictures a suburban braai [barbeque], the late afternoon sun sliding pleasantly through the branches of city’s signature jacaranda trees. In a gesture borrowed from old master group portraits it is the figure in the foreground [below] who provides the pertinent comment, in this case a guard, sitting at a distance yet gazing inward towards the group, as he slumps in his picnic chair.
Street Party, Saxonworld, 2008 © Mikhael Subotzky. Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery.
“This nondescript, everyday scene has the emblematic significance of a billboard,” says Garb. “But it is about the fear of crime rather than crime itself.”
Williams believes it is foreboding rather than fear that haunts the post-apartheid experience, commenting; “It’s a complex mixture of uncertainty with violence attached to it.” But, he adds: “Most countries have had to go through a transition phase, and there is a great sense of willing for it to work.” Goldblatt agrees: “The fact that we were able to emerge from apartheid and its centuries’ long preamble without civil war and with a remarkably enlightened blueprint for civil government can be taken, I think, as evidence that we have the potential to be cured.”
Figures & Fictions is on show at the V&A until 17 July 2011. Visit www.vam.ac.uk.
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