Archive: Issue No. 89, January 2005

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Guy Tillim

Barber´┐Żs shop, Hillbrow

Guy Tillim

Cape Agulhas shaft

Guy Tillim

Grafton Street


Guy Tillim at SANG
by Kim Gurney

Deviance, in forms like abnormality, illness or death, is either administered or suppressed in the ideal concept of a city. However, according to theorist Michel de Certeau, this concept-city is decaying through practices, that instead of being controlled, have reinforced themselves in a 'proliferating illegitimacy'. He says the city is subject to 'contradictory movements, ruses and combinations of power that proliferate and are impossible to administer' ('Walking in the City', Cultural Studies Reader 1993 During, S (ed). London: Routledge).

Johannesburg's inner city is a prime example. Hillbrow was in the 1970s and 1980s home to both a mixture of races and a notorious nightlife. Following a decade of democracy, it still retains some of its appeal but the Monopoly game cachet of Plein Street and Grafton Road is gone. In some areas, vice and crime are now relatively commonplace.

High-rise buildings, often without basic amenities and in dangerous disrepair, have become home to thousands of immigrants and rural South Africans. These so-called 'bad buildings' are burdened by debt and sub-standard living conditions. They are also subject to regular eviction orders, sometimes because the landlords have defaulted on their debts which they pass on to tenants.

Photographer Guy Tillim has captured in his latest body of work an incisive documentary of the everyday lives of those forced to live under such conditions. Tillim is best known for his work in political hotspots in Africa where his portraits and photographic documents have been widely acclaimed. Here, he trains his lens on a subject closer to home using a grant from his prestigious 2004 DaimlerChrysler Award for Photography.

The series is mostly shot inside apartments where the proliferation of doors and passages frames the composition. Their repetition also conveys claustrophobia. The cracked windows with a bird's-eye view of another world are a cruel joke, with bitter interjections of bars and grilles, gates and barbed wire.

Times are desperate. Mathews Ngwenya sits on a weathered chair in his bare room in Sherwood Heights where he removes the rubbish for a living. Yet life goes on. He eats from a pot with a Cerebos salt container by his side.

We witness mundane chores like ironing clothes and fetching water, occasional games of cards in bleak surrounds, all punctuated by the ritualised trauma of watching the so-called 'red ants' evict yet another tenant.

These powerful images stir up the memories of forced removals under apartheid. They also portray people at a particularly vulnerable juncture, exposed in a merciless and humiliating way. After these evictions, the stairwells are scattered with a detritus of personal belongings from the most intimate to the banal.

Tillim creates tension through a play on presence and absence. Here, the bright orange element of a heater in an empty room; there, a toy horse that weeks before belonged to a toddler killed by tuberculosis.

This tension is amplified by chiaroscuro. Dramatic shadows, for instance, often obscure the details of faces. One corollary is a reduction in potentially problematic voyeurism that often accompanies images of vulnerability. Here, the viewer feels less like a trespasser on a tour of poverty and more an observer of a documentary.

Tillim also uses reflections to great effect. A photograph of a barber's shop inside a Hillbrow apartment shows a man framed to the left of the photograph. A mirror in the centre reflects the torso of a second person elsewhere in the room. Above the mirror, a poster of Christ's face completes a most unlikely composite figure.

The juxtaposition of photographs on display also creates new meaning. Two adjacent pictures of empty beds both have portraits hung above them: one of a black man in tribal dress, the other of a white crucified Christ.

The exhibition moves to the Durban Art Gallery and Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2005 following its SANG run.

Opened: November 27
Closes: March 21, 2005

SANG, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 467 4671
www.museums.org.za/iziko
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10am - 5pm


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