David Lurie's Manenberg Avenue is where it's happening
by Robyn Sassen
What draws a London-based Jewish academic to photograph an avenue in the Cape Flats? Manenberg Avenue is coloured by poverty, gangsterism, overpopulation and struggle, and Lurie's photos of this street and its contemporary ethos bagged him the World Understanding Award by Pictures of the Year International. Published by Double Storey books, part of this series of work was recently on show at Photo.ZA gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, but also enjoyed some coverage in the South African creative submissions magazine, Itch, published by Bell-Roberts.
A knee-jerk social response, considering the diverse backgrounds of artist and subject matter, is pejorative: it raises the bigoted demons of racial generalisation, glamourising poverty, riding photographically on the edge of other people's misery. But this type of response can only be one generated before a proper perusal of the book or the individual images.
Carefully compiled, without forced descriptions, Lurie's title evokes Abdullah Ibrahim's legendary composition Manenberg. Accordingly, in these images, where black is black, white is white, and coloured is the ethos and core of the images, a bittersweet taste of this avenue, on the fringe of Cape Town, is proffered.
Lurie's images are confined to this avenue, which immediately contradicts that notion of racist generalisation. It's a visual essay which reflects on Lurie's experiences here: 'I was welcomed, entertained, amused; I was also frightened, bewildered, often disoriented, incredulous', he recalls.
And yes, there are the stereotypes: the tattooed, toothless, armed gangsters, providing complicated reference to the different gangster infrastructures; there's the poverty, washing lines across alley ways between apartment blocks, dirty children, drunkenness and ugliness. Loosely grouped in terms of stages of life, these images are not about Lurie probing a world which is not his, making beautiful images to sell in an expensive book.
Rather, they're about Lurie's humanity. Interjected with the violent scenes are ones of children.
A little boy posed on a kitchen top seems poised to pounce. A young girl hops over her shadow in an innocent universal hopscotch gesture, the thug-graffiti on the walls around her tellingly providing a social commentary. A small child sucks a breast protruding from its mother's blouse. Balloon-like it looks absurdly detached. A man lights a white pipe amid cascading smoke and in front of a pin up girl, who seems to gasp in response.
In equal measures with the bleakness here, is humour. The sweetness of the kids is made tart but real by their context. These are less like artworks that say 'Look at this!' than gestures saying: 'You, too, have experienced this emotion, this kind of reality, this thing.'
Rather than captions, Lurie's book is coloured by comments from residents of Manenberg Avenue, based on interviews with Shawn Uys and others. The overwhelming feature of these sporadic texts is their honesty. They are not about public relations or arty tastefulness. They are crude, sometimes joyful, political and bitter. Above all, they flesh out part of the tone of this portrait of a street. We don't know who Rita Booysen is. We cannot tell whether 'Gollie' Jones is photographed alongside the words he said, but we know he's real.
The award that Lurie received for this extraordinary body of work says a lot. Each image reveals a complex coda of emotional existence and values that supercedes any glib definition.
David Lurie. 2004.Cape Town Fringe: Manenberg Avenue is where it's happening. Double Storey Books, Cape Town