Svea Josephy at Bell-Roberts
by Bettina Malcomess
What strikes one about Svea Josephy's 'Twin Town' is its deliberate employment and parody of the documentary tradition. The work of Guy Tillim, Mikhael Subotzky, and lately Pieter Hugo, can be placed in this particularly Modernist history of what has come to be called 'straight photography'. Each in their own way has developed an aesthetic given to capture something essential about the subjects of their work, usually those people that fall into the category of the other. What is different about Jospehy's 'Twin Town' is that its return to a kind of high formalism avoids overwriting the image with emotion and essence. Born of Modernist parents, Jospehy's solo show is the twin, albeit non-identical, of what has come overwhelmingly to define the South African photographic millieu.
There is something uncanny about Josephy's juxtaposition of places that bare the same names, something simultaneously familiar and strange. Freud points out that the original German word, unheimlich, literally translates as 'unhomely', but also contains the same root as 'secret' or 'geheimlich'. For Freud one way of reading the uncanny is as the 'un-secret', as such the return of the 'repressed'. Josephy's photographs play on the uncanny resemblances between townships and informal settlements and cities, both European and South African. Obvious contradictions occur between the lush blue of a swimming pool, elevated above a panoramic view of Barcelona, Spain, and an aerial photograph of the informal settlement also called Barcelona, in Cape Town.
Both are divided strictly into thirds, the formally beautiful balance of water, city, sky in the European city stands in stark contrast to the flattened ratio of shacks, grass no-man's land and highway. Divided as they are by definite lines, these become indices of continued underdevelopment and division at the periphery. A slightly more localised contradiction emerges in a shot of a derelict building in Johannesburg, City of Gold, versus a double volume shack in Egoli township; and again in the juxtaposition of Sol Kerzner's 'Lost City' with an informal settlement of the same name in the Cape. What emerges here is the uncanny in both senses of the 'unhomely' and 'un-secret', both the spectacle of the 'city', in the case of Kerzner's holiday resort, a constructed simulacrum, and on the other, the stark reality of decay behind the fantasy. In all of Josephy's juxtapositions a 'lost city' literally 'returns' to haunt its namesake, whether this takes the form of the destruction of the Modernist vision of Johannesburg or the informal settlements at the edges of the urban landscape in Cape Town.
What is arresting for me is Josephy's avoidance of framing this contradiction via a subject, someone who in some way engages the gaze of the viewer and with whom identification is, or is not, possible. Susan Sontag points out that photography's ethical dilemma lies in the fact that the subject is always object of the photographic act, as it 'takes' and 'shoots', it also 'others'. Jospehy avoids this through her attention to form over the emotional content, setting up compositional and formal relationships between the 'twin towns' through framing and an eye for line and colour. This extends the uncanny resemblance between places beyond their names so as to disrupt any simple binary opposition between homely and unhomely, spectacular and hidden, developed and undeveloped, self and other. One gets the sense that for each pair, one place could not exist without the other, the 'truth' of each reality is never separable from the other.
The photographs thus present us with twin realities, neither of which is able to legitimately claim to be 'true'. This perhaps explains how Josephy can create such aesthetically pleasing photographs of these irreconcileable realities. The exhibition is probably the most visually exciting to be seen at Bell-Roberts this year. Josephy's colourful photographic palette of chlorinated blues, Astroturf-greens and beach sand browns can be compared with someone who paints in acrylics rather than oils, a David Hockney rather than a Lucian Freud. My favourite twin is the set entitled Lavender Hill, pairing a public bench outside what looks like a typical council block in the London suburb with a similar council block in the Cape Town suburb. While other shots of European cities show up South Africa's underdevelopment, the contrast of a flower bed of pink-purple (lavender-coloured) flowers in the latter with the grey-brown of the English council block is strikingly beautiful. Josephy in this show seeks less to expose differences than to bring them a little closer to home.
Opens: November 14
Closes: December 22
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