SA Photography gets royal treatment
by Joost Bosland
In the cold, rainy center of Copenhagen, in the basement of the Black Diamond, one can find a fantastic survey exhibition of South African photography.
The 'Black Diamond' is the new hyper modern building of the Danish Royal Library. The National Museum of Photography is the pretentious name of a versatile exhibition space on the bottom floor of the building, where 'UNSETTLED: 8 South African photographers' is currently on show. And what a show it is.
Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt, Jodi Bieber, Guy Tillim, Lolo Veleko, Jo Ractliffe, and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (the last two operating as a duo), form the impressive line-up. Over 120 photographs are on display.
The title of the exhibition, 'UNSETTLED,' at first glance seemed to be a reference to South Africa's history of European settlement. Uncolonised, was the initial vague interpretation of the exhibition's title in my mind. Of course, the term settlement is currently used as a description of spontaneous eruptions of living space in the urban landscape - informal settlements.
Fortunately, the young Danish curator of 'UNSETTLED,' Mads Damsbo, emphasizes yet another, and altogether more useful, connotation of the word: 'The word 'unsettled' refers to the effect of the unknown on the subject. The word is frequently used in existentialism, where it designates the ethical encounter between the subject and its other.'
Such concerns are indeed at the core of many of the photographs on the exhibition. The tension between the documentary and fine-art photography is clearly felt. The exhibition design and catalogue are indicators of a fine-art setting, but people like Bieber, Tillim and Broomberg and Chanarin belong - at least - to both worlds.
It startles me to see Tillim included in art exhibitions time after time, while his work differs little from that of many talented press photographers. He is a competent photographer, and his pictures are formally well-balanced compositions. His main subject matter is Africans in crisis situations: images that are all too familiar from the mass media.
Sean O'Toole, former ArtThrob editor, who provided an essay for the catalogue, classifies Tillim as 'just that, a war photographer'. However, as 'UNSETTLED' is a photography exhibition, at a photography-specific venue, Tillim is rightfully included. And to be honest, some of his pictures - Wrestlers, Luanda, Angola from 2001, for example - are stunning.
The Goldblatt pictures in 'UNSETTLED' are from his 'Asbestos' series. The images are far more indefinite, and could be rustic shots of rural life. The documentary quality is added not by default - because the visual language is immediately understood, like in Tillim's works - but by a powerful reappropriation of the title label. By including documentary information in the label, a vehicle that has become an intrinsic part of the artwork as we know it, he circumvents the risk of his photographs becoming decontextualised.
I have to observe that the artworld is not ready for his brilliant use of the title tag. For one, including a four sentence title in art writing seriously interrupts its flow (notice how I avoid mentioning specific works). Moreover, I have seen his striking photograph of a Northern Cape landscape covered in blue asbestos fibres in three separate contexts, with three different versions of the title. The title of the work at Iziko SANG is the longest, the title of the same picture in Copenhagen is relatively short, with the label of its reproduction in 10 Years 100 Artists being somewhere in the middle. Editors and curators, please beware!
Jo Ractliffe is an artist usually operating soundly on the fine art side of the artificial divide that runs through photography. O'Toole's catalogue essay derides a German photographer who called Ractliffe's work boring... so this Dutch boy wouldn't dare to make the same mistake. Let me just say that I tend to sympathize with people who find it difficult, though I am slowly starting to appreciate her work.
In a brief DVD work, Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting), Ractliffe has added a documentary dimension to a vague snapshot of apartheid gulag Vlakplaas by including TRC audio footage. Though interesting, the piece does not deserve the credit of being the only audiovisual work in the exhibition.
Bieber and Veleko are present with work like we know from them, both of the highest quality, but nothing new for a viewer familiar with SA art. The work of Broomberg and Chanarin is dated 2004, and consists mainly of portraits with an accompanying text about the photographed subject. The result is unpretentious, fresh looks into contemporary South Africa, with common people becoming heroes.
The real treasure of 'UNSETTLED' is recent work by Mofokeng. His role as the star of the show is rightfully reiterated by an in-depth interview with him in the catalogue, as he is the only artist to receive such an honour. Mofokeng's 'Billboard' series catches the spirit of contemporary SA immaculately, andPimville, Soweto, 2004 has the potential to become an historical icon. Its juxtaposition of Clear Channel billboards heralding both democracy and Coca-Cola with the silhouette of a self-employed recycling professional is simply majestic.
Curator Damsbo is no stranger to the SA artworld. He recently completed an MAFA under Clive van den Berg at Wits, and during that period curated an exhibition called 'Show Me Home' at the JAG. In the 'UNSETTLED' catalogue, he expresses the intent to take South Africa's pulse - and, quite rare for a survey show - he has actually succeeded.
After Copenhagen, the show will travel to Sweden and Iceland. Let's hope it leaves the Nordic audiences suitably unsettled.
UNSETTLED: 8 South African photographers
The National Museum of Photography at the Royal Library, Copenhagen
Opened: November 17
Closes: February 12
Kristanstads konsthall, Sweden
Opens: March 26
Closes: April 16
Reykjavik Museum of Photography, Iceland
Opens: May 28
Closes: August 14