Look Inside Nine
Exhibitions that seek to expose the challenges that lie ahead for South Africa abound. People are perpetually searching for ways to exhibit their past, share their struggles and suffering, while celebrating their future. Unfortunately, this is all too often still seen only through the lens of apartheid.
While this is understandable, apartheid is only one historical ingredient in the make-up of South Africa today. Maintaining a focus on apartheid as the singular, defining factor typically results in answers about racial inequalities and segregation. Inevitably this is a legacy with which South Africa is still coming to terms and should not abandon, but perhaps one by which the country shouldn't remain solely bound.
Here, a rare opportunity has been created to transgress the limitations of such an understanding of the country and its inhabitants. In the exhibition 'South African Family Stories: A Group Portrait', a multi-media presentation of nine South African families presents a view not only of these family units but also offers an intriguing glimpse into today's South African society. Tracing the individual growth of each of the families over a century, this record extends beyond the crippling effects of apartheid and sees nine families, sharing only a national identity, progressing through the generations.
By using the model of the family, Dutch curator Paul Faber uncovers a means to transcribe a complicated story in a simple way. Family becomes a device to focus the exhibition, engage the distant past and provide an educational basis to the project.
The project began five years ago when Faber sought to find a way in which to present South Africa in a post-apartheid era in an exhibition which was not strictly limited to art. Faber, a curator with the Royal Tropical Institute at the KIT Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, devised a strategy for a Dutch audience to approach South African society, as well as a way for South Africans to reflect upon and learn more about themselves. He sought to avoid an object-oriented exhibition but to portray life and culture. This is a difficult mandate when the exhibition was going to be an interpretation of the nine families by teams of South African artists.
Each team comprised a writer/ researcher, a photographer and a visual artist. The incorporation of literature, photography, video and installation sought to focus on the families, rather than to create unique stand-alone works. In the display, art pieces in each family unit are not identified, and are completely assimilated into the overall presentation.
Some may feel this denigrates the art itself by removing an appropriate context for its understanding, but this is an exhibition about 'ordinary' families, which incorporates contemporary South African artists. The inclusion thereof allows the exhibition to move beyond the personal and into a universal context.
The idea of fine art and artists in an ethnographic museum possesses its own set of difficulties, but Faber succeeds in assimilating visual art into the context in a way that has proved relevant, interesting and educational. Over 125000 people visited the exhibition in Amsterdam. Clearly the family device provides a common point of entry for people of all cultures.
The idea of an outsider orchestrating a personal look at South African society may be problematic, but Faber's close collaborations led to him to the appropriate artists and families. Drawing back, Faber has sidestepped his status as an outsider by allowing the families to tell the stories themselves. His views certainly provide the overarching structure of the final display, but the knowledge and expertise of insiders come to the fore.
The exhibition is organised into nine individual family units surrounding a town square.
Individuals are presented as actual people, not objectified images. The families are certainly consumed in some sense, but it is with their agreement and direction. Private environments have been moved into the public realm and at times this results in discomfort. Upon entering each unit viewers are taken through a generational progression of each family. Objects in the units at first seem trivial, even mundane, but reveal themselves as products of the family's history. These artifacts are in turn supported by visual documentation that includes both family photographs as well as new photographs taken by South African photographers.
History is larger than the individuals but it is through the individuals that viewers come to understand its effect on particular people. The use of the everyday objects to translate the history, and the avoidance of iconic images that people expect to see, demand that viewers dig deeper to truly comprehend. Objects accompany their owners on journeys and carry stories of their own.
On opening night I overheard South Africans reveling in the fact that these were simply ordinary people and families much like themselves. This allowed them to become participants in the exhibition. Family is a universal institution and is thus an ideal medium to narrow the distance between viewer and viewed. It will be interesting to see where the families portrayed are in another ten years, as much as it will be interesting to see where South Africa is.
An extensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition and attempts are being made through a website "seeing / being seen" (www.see.org.za) to follow these families and their developments. Already one family is in the midst of a divorce, another has a son forced to leave school and return to the familial land for protection from a gang, while a third has found themselves destitute.
Opens: March 31
Closes: December 2004
National Cultural History Museum, 149 Visagie Street, Pretoria
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