'Surviving the Lens' at Johannesburg Art Gallery
by Kathryn Smith
Since the representational politics debate took centre stage some five years ago in South Africa, critically re-looking at how Africans have been imaged and have imaged themselves both historically and contemporaneously has become a matter of urgency. A rough audit of the number of photographic exhibitions on this and similar topics in recent years in South Africa reveals the staff at the South African National Gallery win hands down for what appears to be a dedicated exposure of such image-making practices. This includes curatorial assistance and support on similar exhibitions abroad.
The PhotoSynthesis catalogue from a few years back lists such shows, and since then 'Lines of Sight', 'eyeAfrica', the Cape Town Month of Photography, 'Xscape' (part of the Shuttle 99 workshops), the launch of two new galleries dedicated to photography (Photo ZA in Johannesburg and the Photographers Gallery ZA in Cape Town) and now this exhibition have gone a long way to situate photography as an autonomous medium that is not simply the bastard cousin of some of visual art's more entrenched disciplines.
Up until now, three types of shows dominated (I know generalising is terribly unpopular, but this isn't a thesis). Firstly, the fresh, young, contemporary stuff (sexy); secondly, the social documentary and newsy shows (with no apparent end in sight to the Jürgen Schadeberg retrospectives - he's done some fine work, but he's not the only one); and finally, shows with a clear post-colonial bent that employ historical images as a conceptual fulcrum or counterpoint. With the latter, it can often be difficult to suppress a yawn, especially when tricksy juxtapositioning detracts attention from the images themselves, or the context of their production. I stand corrected, but it seems that seldom have we seen historical African photographic exhibitions (pre-1950) in this country where the images are presented on their own terms.
'Surviving the Lens' is curated (and published as a beautiful coffee-table style book) with the intention of making public a selection of 50 turn-of-last-century photographs of people from south and east Africa. Until now, it has been mostly images originating from west and central Africa that have been all the rage.
The curators point out that south and east Africa have no public galleries and museums that have yet made a point of collecting historical photographs in terms of their value as autonomous works of art. Libraries and non-art museums have collected, because of the value of historical (read anthropological or ethnographic) information they offer.
The time these images were taken coincides with high European imperialism in the region. The general assumption is that during this time, images that were produced by European travellers and traders, scientists and researchers of indigenous people could only have exploited them, presented them as the quintessential "noble savage" with a healthy dose of primitive erotica thrown in.
Clichés are always grounded in truth somewhere down the line (no smoke without fire and such), and this exhibition manages to marry the more ambiguous images that avid post-colonialists would be quick to criticise with those that clearly indicate the power is held by the sitter, not the photographer. In one particular image, captioned on the print itself as "girl waiting for her lover", a young woman in traditional dress sits doe-eyed, resting in what looks like a front room, or covered porch. On closer inspection, she sits in a photographic studio, her accoutrements likely to be props, or at least embellished. But by whom - the sitter or the photographer?
The double-bind that sits with you when viewing this show seems to rest in this image of the young woman. Most of the other portraits in this show declare themselves - the sitters are uncompromising in the way they choose to represent themselves. A chief in pseudo-European uniform is flanked by those who serve him, wearing traditional dress; youths smile into the lens. There is a performative and a memorialising element to the images. A couple of years of in-depth academic critical study in this area during an undergraduate and post-graduate degree made me constantly second-guess myself - am I seeing what is there, or what I want to see, or what I'm told I'm seeing?
Going back to the image of the young girl and others like it, the curators point out that most of the images on the show - all framed originals, which is great - were most likely produced for tourists or travelling traders: "Because such photographs needed to meet the preconceptions of the early tourists who took them away as illustrative souvenirs, they invariably stereotype the subjects." In other words, these photographs were produced with a commercial end in mind and demand always dictates supply.
They then make an astute and quite practical observation: due to the very slow shutter speeds of cameras at that time, the subjects would have had to stand before the camera for a period of time - it was not a "hit-and-run" or "mik-en-druk" situation. They conclude then, quite reasonably, that the subjects must have wanted to be photographed to engage in that exchange. Joseph Thomson, a photographer of the time, is quoted in a wall text recounting occasions when the subjects were not as willing: "... the moment that the attempt to focus [on] them took place they would fly in terror to the shelter of the woods. To show them photographs and try to explain what I wanted, only made them worse. They imagined I was a magician trying to take possession of their souls which once accomplished they would be entirely at my mercy. They would not in the end even look at a photo ... I spoiled several negatives, and finally gave up the attempt." (1883-1884)
The exhibition is extensively captioned, including as much biographical, historical and technical data as possible, tracking the frustrations of photographers with the contingencies of working in Africa coupled with unwieldy equipment, ruminations and wild theories about white artists and the "Negro physiognomy", and disappointments about having to reject negatives. In this way, the images and their intentions are presented in as unmediated a way as possible - their object status is clear, especially in the case of the tourist postcards, and there has been no attempt to "art them up".
I liked this exhibition. I liked being seduced by the sepia tones and personal details. I liked not really trusting what I was being presented with, but knowing what I wanted to take away with me. Most of all, I liked Hulleah Tsinhnajinnie's cited comment, dating from 1998: "At first when I began reading ethnographic images I would become extremely depressed and then recognition dawned. I was viewing the images as an observer, not as the observed. My analytical eye matured, I became suspicious of the awkward, self-appointed 'expert' narrative ... that was a beautiful day when the scales fell from my eyes and I first encountered photographic sovereignty. A beautiful day when I decided that I would take responsibility to reinterpret images of native peoples. My mind was ready, primed with stories of resistance and resilience, stories of survival."
Until March 31
Johannesburg Art Gallery, corner Klein and King George Streets, Joubert Park
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