Pieter Hugo at Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
by Michael Smith
Walking into a gallery in Johannesburg in the current exhibition climate increasingly holds the potential for encounters with the photographic image. Stretching back to the legacy of the Drum photographers (Kally Magubane), the seminal work of David Goldblatt, and even the so-called 'Bang Bang Club' of the turbulent 80s and early 90s, photographs have been a mainstay of our local visual culture for at least half a century now. Yet only in the last decade or so has the prevalence of the photograph in vital visual culture begun to be adequately represented in the gallery system.
The attendant shift from the limitations of the documentary image into more speculative modes of photographic image-making in South African contemporary art has been amply traced elsewhere in recent art criticism. So much so that one is tempted to hope that photography's position as valid artistic currency would at least be established by now. Yet the tenacity of belief in the medium's evidentiary capacity means that photographs are still always fighting perceptions of themselves as documents, simulacra for something else. Nonetheless, more and more commercial gallerists seem keen to tout the medium when it operates at a sufficiently complex level. One such gallerist and curator is Warren Siebrits, whose walls have in recent months borne some of the more arresting photographic images to be shown in Jozi for some time.
Siebrits' mid-career retrospective of Jo Ractliffe's work showed her to be one of the most consistently innovative and compelling SA artists to be working in the medium, establishing her range and authority with a tightly curated show and a recondite catalogue which foregrounded her processes as much as their end products. This year, Siebrits' show 'Photography - Manuel Alvarez Bravo to Pieter Hugo' played an interesting and worthwhile game of canon-disruption, rightly inserting numerous seminal SA photographic artists alongside their established international counterparts in a revised syllabus of names.
This month sees Siebrits bringing Cape Town-based and most recent Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Pieter Hugo (see NEWS) to Johannesburg for a solo show entitled 'Looking Aside'. The exhibition's title establishes Hugo's ground right off the bat: these are works that provoke discomfort, that image the faces that usually cause us to look aside in unthinking embarrassment. Yet the show is compelling beyond our own uneasiness, and reveals Hugo to be an important young voice in SA art. While a body of work having certain conceptual overlaps with this
exhibition was recently shown at Michael Stevenson Contemporary in Cape
Town, Siebrits has nonetheless curated a singular event, with its own dynamics and conceptual chiaroscuro.
The show deals with three broad groups of sitters: people of various ages with albinism, people of various ages who are blind, and people of old age. Siebrits has generally curated these groups on separate walls, thereby concentrating their visual impact. They peer out from their pictorial spaces, here evasive and uncomfortable (Thami Mawe, Johannesburg), there bold and confrontational (Sithabile Manqele, Pietermaritzburg), electrifying the gallery space with a range of responses to the moment of exposure. As portraits often do, they become as much about optical interaction between artist and subject as they are about subjects being studied.
In all but one photograph, the brilliance of Hugo's double flash reflected in the sitters' eyes asserts the presence of the artist, like the unobtrusive self-portrait in the mirror of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage (1434). It is in these moments of immersion in the faces of the subjects that the show cuts through theory and really touches its audience, the images inevitably speaking eloquently about the lives and experiences of the subjects. Yet one remains discomforted by Hugo's insistence on choosing sitters who are emblematic of difference and relegation. And therein probably lies his importance for the canon of SA photography: that he establishes himself as a photographer of difference in a country obsessed with definitions and the markers of variation.
Despite bearing a formal similarity to a number of works by Terry Kurgan exhibited in Johannesburg at Goodman Gallery last year (2005), specifically her Some Jo'burg Kids (2005) series, Hugo's works differ in their visual vocabulary. Hugo's portraits favour a pallid, wintry clinicism that guides our reading of them as archival inventories of difference. This gesture towards a 'cool eye' mode of recording pulls productively against the amount of idiosyncratic detail the images communicate, especially printed on the scale that they are here (approximately three times life size): these are, emphatically, individuals not types.And while we are, as a nation, still given to sweeping generalisations and almost pathological homogenisation in language and visual culture, these works challenge that, insisting on the need to look at individuals again, no matter how disquieting their appearances are to our notion of normal.
One wall of images, however, continues to trouble even after one has rationalised all the theory. The portraits of Justive Seronne, Worcester, Laurence Phutiyagae, De Doorns and Chante' Adams, Uitenhage seem undeniably exploitative, the type that appear calculated to evoke sympathy rather than understanding. With these images, a small percentage of an otherwise powerful exhibition, Hugo seems to lose at his own game, venturing into the problematic realm of 'imaging the other' without recourse to the complex ambiguity inherent in the rest of the pictures.
Opened: October 10
Closed: November 3
Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art
146 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 327 0000
Hours: Tue - Sat 11am - 6pm