Thursday, June 2, 2011

FACTS AND FICTIONS - 1: contemporary South African photography @ the V+A

The title of this exhibition being held at the Victoria and Albert Museum suggests that it is not about the politics of the region and might be about photography in general since the dichotomy between what is and what is not in a photograph is a question that often arises. Jo, a fellow student who met me at the exhibition, was a bit more down to earth in her initial understanding of the exhibition, saying that the title probably related to the actual subjects in the exhibition. At her talk, the curator, Professor Tamar Garb of University College London, described it as a teasing dialogue.

photographing the Peter Pan statue

After a morning walk from Holland Park across Kensington Gardens via the Peter Pan statue, I arrived and waited outside the main entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum in case any other OCA students decided to respond to my posting on the OCA Flickr forum. In spite of displaying my OCA notebook prominently there appeared to be no one else so, as I began to feel like a displaying peacock with no hen in sight, I went inside and began to make enquiries about the exhibition. 

entrance to the V+A exhibition

While the David Goldblatt solo exhibition is free, the Facts and Fictions is not and so I began to queue; hardly surprising then that OCA students would rather come on the OCA day when entry will be free. It was at this point that my mobile buzzed; Jo aka Crazee1ady had come but had gone to a different entrance and was wondering where I was. A few minutes later we were in the queue together discussing both the banalities of the camera club mentality where everything has to conform to certain rules and the corresponding over-aestheticisation of photography as high art. As usual with OCA students, I found someone who was asking the same kind of questions as myself.

entrance to the V+A photo-gallery

On entering the exhibition, one is met by a large photograph (most photographs in this exhibition are large) by Pieter Hugo of a white couple cradling a small black boy. We did not give it much time since it’s meaning was apparently obvious; however, in the talk we attended afterwards by Tamar Garb the exhibition curator, our attention was drawn to the complexity of the image. One tends to assume that one knows the kind of narrative going on here, that of white people contradicting the trend of descrimination against black people with an obvious act of compassion. Here is what we assume to be a family, one that includes both white and black, configured in a traditional way, as if from a Renaissance painting; the setting is impoverished since the sofa is actually a car seat and there is no carpet to cover the bare floor. This photograph could not have been made at one time since the black and white people lived in segregation. One might even go so far as to fantasise that the boy is the child of an AIDS patient who has died. Looking closer though, our constructed story might find itself being questioned a little as we notice the man has a prosthetic leg while the woman has a mark on her nose (which is in fact a melanoma); the small black boy looks well fed and the people appear very clean. When we learn of the truth behind this image which is that the white couple are actually tenants of the small black boys father, we may start to see the image differently; it is likely to upset any view that this yet another image asserting the superiority of the white man over the black.

The exhibition itself consists of the work of 17 different photographers who live and work in South Africa; they have all been made between 2000 and 2010. Hence, there is no great political dialogue with images of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tuttu and various white politicians like De Clerk to remind us of the painful past of that country. This exhibition is much more likely to break down the veil of anti-apartheid that many people in the UK still unconsciously carry as it reveals the accomplished work of contemporary photographers. Whether one likes the work or not, it very well presented and the images excellently constructed.

The first group of photographs we looked at was by Zanele Muholi,
... an active lesbian, whose elegantly portraits of dressed black men, two are wearing Zulu clothes with one supporting a series of brightly coloured combs in his hair, is a reminder that this exhibition is post-apartheid. Jo and I look closely at one image and notice a degree of noise; for a moment we exchange jocular but potentially nerdy comments such as “I’d like to put that one through Camera Raw 6.1” before standing back a little to realize that from normal viewing distance, one can not see any noise at all. This group of photographs contains a series of images called Beulahs about black transvestite men and another called Faces and Phases about black lesbians whose images are shown in nine large, striking black and white photos, some of the faces looking distinctively female with others unmistakably butch.

Graeme Williams
... does street photography in colour and has traveled to over 100 towns to make his portfolio. His images are reminiscent of some of Joel Meyerwitz with their late afternoon light and long shadows. Williams has no agenda and says he photographs “to capture a feeling or a mood rather than a particular event.” His images reflect the change that has taken place in South Africa.

One series of images that Jo and I both liked were of an abbatoir. This may sound strange coming from a vegetarian but these photographs are concerned with the Muslim way of preparing meat known as Halaal. They are made by a couple of Muslim male twins, Hasan and Husain Essop
... who document this practice by making images that are performed for the camera and later digitally constructed which means that the only people in them are the photographers themselves. There is no obvious sign of Photoshop here, either compositionally or aesthetically, meaning that the images are possessed of a seductive complexity. There are contrasts between modernity and tradition, the West and Islam, with a narrative about young Muslim men negotiating their way in contemporary society. Some of the images are quite gory as they reveal the way the animals are killed with sheep being hung upside down, in some cases by only one leg, and allowed to die slowly.

Guy Tillim
... is a photojournalist who wants to portray not the poverty of people but their dignity. Jo is not happy with this rationalization since the images still reflect poverty. The names of those being photographed are beside the images while there is a random nature to the photographs with their oblique angles and fragmentary approaches. Jo comments on the sense of fun that is apparent in images of children. The images were all made in the course of a week in Petros Village, Malawi.

Zwelethu Mthethwa
... a painter and photographer, has three large colour photographs, (one of them being used to advertise the exhibition) of strangely clad young African men standing in wooded countryside. The series is called Brave Ones, and pictures Zulus of the Shembe religious community who have adopted a mixture of both Christian and African beliefs. They are wearing ritual dress that draws heavily on the Scottish kilt and the green Arcadian background might be considered a reference to Scotland. As the curator points out, they pose in a way that might be considered reminiscent of artist like Gainsborough. There is beauty here but might there be also further meaning !? A pleasing response to the stereo-typed ethnographic images used to record and inevitably help restrain people in the past.

Jo and I wonder about how some of these images were made. There are clues in the printing methods, C type print indicating a film based camera while Cotton rag prints are obviously digital though possibly not made from a digital camera but from scanned film. Large format cameras have been used in some instances as the clarity of many of the images is a delight to the eye and a reminder of the physicality of the photograph.

Berni Searle
... is an artist that works with different media and here presents a series of 6 images in 2 triptychs. Jo finds the photography excellent, the photographers figure clad in a white robe has been shot in a studio with no sign of any definite shadow, yet does not follow whatever it is that the artist is saying. The series shows a crown of leaves falling from the head of the photographer who is covered by the white robe that largely conceals her identity. The leafy crown drops some kind of liquid ... not blood but something resembling it.

Kudzanai Chiurai’s
... presentation of a series called The Parliament, is a satirical look at politicians. At first, I wonder if these images are real as I look at a young man in sunglasses coming up the stairs carrying a pile of books and a briefcase; a pistol is tucked into his trousers. Fortunately this is not the reality for politicians in South Africa but in countries like Zimbabwe it is perhaps not impossible. These images are not only amusing but perhaps some of the most original in the exhibtion as they respond to politics not with the seriousness that politicians attempt to impress us with but with humour.

Pieter Hugo's work
... is first experienced as one enters the exhibition with the previously discussed photograph of the white couple cradling a black child, an image whose symbolism is not as obvious as one might first assume. The curator remarks that it can be viewed as being about the difficult transition that South Africa has been experiencing. Hugo's approach is documentary and yet it is not predictable. He has found off-beat characters to photograph such as wild honey collectors, street performers and a group of men wearing tweed; the wearing of Scottish tweed goes back to colonial days when Scottish culture was obviously a strong influence effecting local traditions.

Mikhael Subotzky
... draws from the documentary tradition of photography. Large prints show quite ordinary vistas such as that of a security guard sitting on a chair outside a suburban house; it is from a series called Wendy House and the Wendy House in this instance is a small hut that obviously caters for the guards' needs.

Terry Kurgan
... shows images of photographers who work in a park, photographing the people who come there. As well as a set of 6 large colour photographs of photographers involved, there is a group of much smaller photographs made by the photographers for clients who never came back to collect them.

David Goldblatt
... born 1930, is the oldest photographer on show here and has been responsible for training some of the other photographers through his Market Photo workshop that started in the 1980's. His work is mostly in black and white, reflecting the formalism of that tradition and it's concern with ethical and moral issues and representing subjects such as vulnerability and masculinity. By photographing ex-offenders at the scenes of their crimes, he creates an interesting photo-essay that is accompanied by long narrative captions in which the person pictured is also able to voice their story. Goldblatt works with security staff to make these images. His colour work is also on view in a series about tradesmen.

Roelof Petrus Van Wyk
... has photographed the heads naked torsos of a number of people against a black background in a formal studio setting. There is a brashness about these images that flaunt anthropological conventions. 

Jodi Bieber
... in a set of 3 images from a series called Real Beauty, in which beauty is far from obvious, images scantily clad women. There is a fat black woman in a bikini and two white women smoking cigarettes, one of whom might be described as elderly and is almost topless except for a black negligee bra while the other is a somewhat corpulent middle aged woman.

refreshment in the V+A restaurant

It was at this point that Jo and I broke for some lunch before the curator's talk. We enjoyed a sandwich while admiring the magnificent room to which the restaurant is attached. It was soon time to make our way to the lecture hall in the Sackler Centre.

The 45 minute talk was by the curator, Tamar Garb, who talked about the exhibition as a whole. A video of her talking can be seen ...
She mentioned 3 different genres previously at work in South Africa, namely the ethnographic (traditionally a white man’s view of the world) as well as documentary (telling the world about South Africa) and portraiture. She also talked about the emergence of colour art photography during the 1990's which coincided with the transformation of South Africa from a provincial, inward looking country that had suffered years of isolation owing to apartheid. Most of what the curator said during this talk, I have inserted in my understanding of the exhibition. One thing Jo and I realised after this talk was that we had missed some of the exhibits and therefore needed to return again to the exhibition which required a bit of negotiation with security at the entrance.

Santu Mofokeng
... works with film and also in the darkroom. Much of his works references AIDS such as in the series Child-headed Households, the parents having died of AIDS, while in Chasing Shadows, he images the spiritual life to be found in a group of caves where a close relative of the photographer went in an attempt to find a cure for AIDS.

Sabelo Mlangeni
... is a gay man who focuses on the nature of relationships between men, working with a documentary style in black and white. His photographs contain depictions of poverty yet are more concerned with the intimacy between people and the places they inhabit. The compositions are interesting. Another series called "Country Girls" contains photographs of men dressed as women addressing concerns of violence against women. This kind of work could not have happened until the more recent and liberal times.

Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleke
... is a female street photographer and part of the generation of artists celebrating the end of apartheid; she plays with the language of fashion photography with those pictured often in costume that can include tweed.

Jo Radcliffe is described as being in dialogue with traditional documentary practice. In a series called Terreno Occupado, about the border war in Angola during the 1970's and 1980's, there are images not of war but of the effects of war. The images are not classically composed and this reflects banality of the subject matter which includes a series of murals about the Portuguese exploration of Africa.

This exhibition helped to free me of preconceived notions of South Africa and as I waited for a train soon after, I realised that I was seeing a "black woman" in front of me differently, with more understanding of her world. The exhibition is also an interesting view of photography as a whole particularly from a contemporary viewpoint.

A lot of the photographers are represented here ...

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