Dale Yudelman at the Photographer's Gallery
by Nathalie Rosa Bucher
Among the items displayed in Robben Island's A section is a splendid saxophone made entirely of found objects. This special sax is part of 'Cell Stories', an exhibition that grants visitors a unique insight into prison life, showing prisoners' resilience and creative spirit. Each item reveals intimate details about its owner and speaks volumes about the conditions of incarceration.
Dale Yudelman's latest solo exhibition 'I am ' showcases 21 diptychs and an eight-minute film, engaging with individuals who leave their home countries to seek employment and a better life here. Each piece captures notices spotted at supermarkets and convenience stores, where predominantly Zimbabweans and Malawians make themselves available for work. Like the saxophone, Yudelman's photographs present highly individualised objects so the viewer can gain an understanding of the impact of migration in a way that is non-intrusive but insightful.
'Each note had its own character, the paper torn, placed or jammed onto the board, sometimes even with chewing gum! Seeing something handwritten, in a time where we don't see much handwriting, revealed a lot to me,' says Yudelman. Yudelman, whose background is in photojournalism, says that the issue he engaged with is one that has been picked up before and been the centre of many exhibitions. Eminent Brazilian photographer Sebastião Selgado spent several years travelling around the world for his series Migrations - humanity in transition. Yudelman's motivation, however, was to approach the topic in a more personal manner. Instead of taking portraits of the authors, he made the very notes the subject of his gaze. Each diptych channels attention to the subtle and concealed minutae, intimate as DNA details. These give insight into the essence of a feeling, a mood.
Drawn by the way people connect and by the human experience, Yudelman taps into the collective energy in order to create awareness. 'This is about finding humility in other people's struggles,' he said. 'The series also enabled me to tackle the impact of technology on our lives and our notion of a collective. We tend to become very isolated with technology. We have fewer one-on-one-conversations as they shift and take place via cellphone and emails. Most people's lives happen on Facebook instead of out on the street!'
Over time, Yudelman took colour photographs of more than 100 notes, each in their own way, besides being a mini-CV, stamped with individualism. He paired each of these with a monochrome image of familiar structures from our cities. Suzgo can carry out duties like 'house-keeping, gardening and horse-nurturing'; Harry lists a number of skills and is 'a lover of pets'; Emmie, a woman from Malawi, 'with good behaviour and experience.' Thomson, at the end of his note, states that you 'will never regret'. Rachel, from Zimbabwe, takes a very methodical approach, listing her name, age, nationality, and skills and at the end a 'thank you'. Shadrick's note was written on a page torn out of a diary, and is crammed with detail, as he lists six different positions he is seeking. Many of the authors, although in their late 20s or older, still call themselves 'boy': 'I am a Boy, Malawian, Aged 26.' Clearly, the authors know how to play on the prevalent perceptions and the laws of demand and supply.
Migration from Central and Southern Africa to South Africa became institutionalised with the imposition of brutal taxes by the colonial regimes in the 19th century and hasn't ceased since. Yudelman said he felt drawn to his subject matter because refugees are regarded as a problem, they are thought to steal jobs. 'This work has given me a little insight, has shown me how people are struggling, how hard they try to find work,' he said.
The black and white images on the right half of each diptych showcase iconic city structures: the uncompleted highway near the Waterfront, the Joburg skyline, a woman crossing the road, seen from behind a rain-drop covered windscreen, a silhouette, standing at a bus stop. Focusing on familiar traits, shapes and features, Yudelman reveals that the labels, whether they are 'refugee', 'foreigner' or 'migrant', Malawian, Somali or Zimbabwean, are artificial: rather the 'refugee experience' is a universal one.
It also creates an inversion, as the reality we think we know, is in black and white, capturing a dream-like state, while the one the artist is drawing us closer to, the one we tend to overlook, is in colour. While each note captures individualism, with spelling mistakes as well as humour ('not forgetting I am a hip hop activist/DJ'), the images set a strong aesthetic counterpoint.
In order to guide the imagination of his audience towards this reality few are familiar with, Yudelman added an eight-minute film to the exhibition, set outside the Home Affairs Refugee Centre on the Foreshore. It is 4am. Rows of people, huddled under plastic or blankets, sleep outside, in order not to lose their place in the queue. Belongings, kept in plastic bags, hang from a tree like fruit of gargantuan proportion and bodies pressed against each other in volatile queues follow in rapid succession, as anyone brandishing a camera is chased by Home Affairs officials.
It seems as if the images were shot in a disaster area, not in walking distance of a tourist Mecca, and an international convention centre. 'One or two of the officials tried to communicate, the rest put me right back in the 80s,' recalls Yudelman, who worked as a photojournalist for The Star in the mid-80s. While trying to film, Yudelman met Braam Hanekom and Cyril, a young man from Zimbabwe. Hanekom, of PASOP (People Against Suffering Oppression And Poverty), an advocacy and service group that works for refugee rights, shared his insight into the tremendously challenging, at times volatile situation at the Foreshore. 'Of the 200, 300 people gathered, only about 20 to 30 end up making it onto the bus that will take them to the Home Affairs offices in Barrack Street, where they are issued temporary permits. People write their names on a list, get numbers allocated. Men and women are separated and there are also groups according to nationalities. There is always confusion though,' said Yudelman. The procedure leaves those who did not make it vulnerable, without status.
'When I met Cyril, I told him what I was planning and Cyril offered to write a hip hop piece. We connected at regular intervals but the day before the opening of the exhibition, I had no ending to the film!' While Yudelman was setting up his exhibition, Cyril appeared, like a deus ex machina, with a poem. 'I had my camera with me, filmed him and that is what became the ending I was looking for. It is also what made the creative process worthwhile.'
To enhance the impact of the visuals captured, Yudelman carefully selected the music. The opening sequences are paired with the traditional tune of 'Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)', radio news snippets on Zimbabwe are underscored with Mbira music, a vibrant track by the Refugee All Stars follows, before Geoffrey Oryema's hauntingly beautiful track 'The River'.
Although Yudelman often directs his lens at the ills of our society, he is not blind to images of tenderness and celebration of the human spirit, nor the ironies that sometimes seem to occur at the fault lines of rich and poor, when worlds that should not meet, collide. These opposites, as in his acclaimed, ongoing series Reality Bytes, create tension and humour, are satirical, and stir up emotions. The artist's images express an urge to display truths, not to overlook the subtle, ambiguous, unexpected, grey areas of the reality some, not that different from us, inhabit. It also speaks of a refusal to kill hope and humanity. Or as Cyril rhymed:
'What is my identity? I am Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Somali, Malawian, who you're gonna run to in my situation? I am the people. Africa. Is one.'
Nathalie Rosa Bucher holds an MPhil in Rhetoric Studies from UCT and works as a freelance journalist, researcher, translator and publicist. Her areas of interest are arts and culture, migration, politics and social justice
Opens: March 5
Closes: April 12
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