South African Contemporary Photography Conference and Exhibition at the Hereford Photography Festival
by Claire Rousell
Looking at Pieter Hugo's Messina/Musina and Stan Engelbrecht's African Salad, one visitor to the South African Contemporary Photography Conference at the Hereford Photography Festival asked, 'So which is the real South Africa?'
Hugo and Engelbrecht discussed their visual studies of South African life, coming from two very different but interlinked points of departure. Engelbrecht's African Salad is a celebration of South Africa's cultural diversity expressed in its colourful and varied dishes. It is a recipe book, photographic exploration and collection of stories about its participants that takes a light-hearted and optimistic view of contemporary South Africa without being flippant about its struggles and complexities. In contrast to this Hugo's Messina/Musina scratches relentlessly at the sore that is the border town formerly known as Messina. It is a tough and visually articulate document to some of the stories of the citizens of what he depicts as a brutal town. There are moments of intense optimism in this body of work but they must be sifted from the grittiness of these portraits.
Perhaps the viewer's puzzlingly simplistic question helps us to understand why a festival of South African photography is necessary in this, or any, quaint town outside of major metropolitan centres. Hereford lies in the South West of England near the Welsh border amidst rolling hills and thousand year old church spires. I thought this was an unlikely location for debating the nature of post-apartheid photography. The festival, directed by Paul Wombell, is made up of two parts (September/October 2007 and May/June 2008) each with a one-day conference with talks from leading South African photographers and commentators.
Part I showed a range of work from students from the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg and from seven South African photographers, alongside work from students in and around Hereford. Speakers included Hugo and Engelbrecht; John Fleetwood of Market Photo Workshop; Michael Godby, Professor of History of Art at UCT, and photographer Andrew Tshabangu. The festival's aim is to show a broad range of photographic practices to provide a platform from which to launch discussion on the role of photography in post-apartheid South Africa. Wombell feels that contemporary photography is central in South Africa's renegotiation of historical narratives and identities, giving it an urgency perhaps less apparent in current European practice.
Other artists showing work on the festival but not presenting at the conference were Lien Botha, Nadine Hutton, David Lurie and René-Paul Savignan. In all, this festival provides a cross-section of the wide variety of photography practiced in South Africa yet doesn't seeking finite answers to the complex questions of identity, history and power. And hopefully what stems from this two-part festival is a more nuanced and critical understanding of the nature of the photography being produced in South Africa and Africa.
Claire Rousell is a MA photography student from South Africa studying at Sunderland University, North East England.