'Then and Now' at the Durban Art Gallery
by Peter Machen
'Then and Now' is one of those exhibitions in which a simple premise gives way to a flowering of complexity. The concept behind the project was straightforward: eight photographers - all stalwarts of the struggle against the apartheid regime, all but one members of the seminal Afripix collective - were asked to select twenty images which exemplified the periods before and after apartheid's end in 1994. The results are currently on display in the Durban Art Gallery, and also contained in a catalogue for the show, which includes an introductory essay from Michael Godby.
This is a big exhibition � 160 images � and it is to the credit of Paul Weinberg and his fellow photographers that the body of work never loses its focus. Each frame maintains the viewer's attention, and because the whole things is broken up into digestible fragments, I left the gallery with the unusual sense that for once I had managed to see the entire exhibition properly in one go (I often start to feel full halfway through an exhibition and have to return).
The result is not as obviously cleaved into two pieces as one might expect, and perhaps all the better for that. The photographers have refrained for the most part from using the kinds of iconic images that define decades and moments. And when these icons do appear, they appear meekly, without flag-waving. In George Hallet's First Encounter (Johannesburg 1994) we see Nelson Mandela from a side view. In Weinberg's Inauguration of President Nelson Mandela (Pretoria 1994), he is reduced to near anonymity through a pixelated screen in a stadium (Weinberg and his fellow struggle photographers were pushed away from the centre by the international media onslaught). We see the back of FW de Klerk in another of Weinberg's images (1994), and Desmond Tutu's blurred finger trying to control an angry crowd in Sebokeng in an image from Graeme Williams (1990).
Instead of retreading familiar iconography, Weinerg and his photographic family have chosen for both before and after 1994, images that are more intimate than spectacular, more banal than historic. Carefully studied portraits, details of the intricacies of daily life, shots that often seem almost incidental, yet richly so. There are, of course, images of corpses, but they too maintain their banality, their specificity.
That said, Hallet's image of Mandela visiting three women in 1994, represents, for me, the very centre of 'Then and Now', a conduit to the past and the future. The movingly beautiful hope and joy on the faces of the women is the look of people who are seeing their saviour. It is the look of pure love. And it is a look that moves both backward into time, to all that everyone in the image has experienced to bring them to that point, and forward to now, fourteen years later, at a moment when we have come to realise that our salvation might have been a slightly more complex matter than we all imagined. This is one of the very few photographs that has ever made me cry.
After Mandela's inauguration, South Africa's struggle photographers lost much of their market due to the international media's waning interest in the country as a news story. But as Godby points out in the catalogue, the lifting of the cultural boycott allowed international curators to discover the extraordinary range of creativity in the South African art world, not least in photography. The result is that, after some lag, many of South Africa's documentarians found themselves on a new stage.
Some of them shifted focus entirely, some continue to document violence and struggle elsewhere, some have moved on to other local struggles such as poverty and HIV, and some, like David Goldblatt have gone on doing pretty much what they always did, as their country changes around them. But although their central subject matter had dissolved and shifted, the primary difference between the two eras, seen from a collective perspective, is not in content but in form.
It is not as if the photographs taken under the previous dispensation were not concerned with form or composition � in fact many of them were highly aestheticized, even as their creators might have denounced an aesthetics in the face of the struggle. But now there is more time, more freedom, and of course � importantly - photographers are no longer necessarily working for next-day publication, no longer subject to the slimmed down visual discourse of newspapers and picture editors.
Photographer Eric Miller defines the difference between the two eras as the difference between 'when something explodes in your face, and you have to be quick enough to record it' and 'recording the slower, more human processes in the story'. But these more human processes are seldom considered to be hot news topics. As Godby suggests, images surrounding issues such as HIV, crime and poverty no longer have the power to mobilise the country. Indeed the country is often deeply divided by them � and they do not maintain a high visual profile in the country's media, which is more concerned with simpler stories in which sides are easily taken. And so, while the war against apartheid was heavily documented, other, less easily defined wars remain largely unacknowledged in our country's media, even as they often overflow from our galleries and coffee-table books.
Although it's no competition � the exhibition functions most sturdily as an ambient sense of collective reality � Goldblatt nonetheless emerges as the master of these eight comrades; which is appropriate in a way, since Goldblatt mentored many of the photographers in the Afripix collective. So much has been written about photography over the last century, and yet I still find myself discussing what constitutes a great photograph. While I've not arrived at any kind of satisfactory response, I know that staring long enough at Goldblatt's twenty or so images should eventually provide some kind of answer.
He's in superb company though � internationally acclaimed names such as Weinberg, Guy Tillim and Cedric Nunn, as well as those who have more than paid their dues but who names are not as widely known by those outside of their field: George Hallet, Graeme Williams, Gisele Wulfsohn and Eric Miller. Looking at this generous palette of human experience, I was struck by the thought that the selection of the images by each photographer (perhaps with Weinberg's conceptual assistance) would inevitably be determined by the visual filters that accompany them in their 21st century lives, filters that are to all intents from a different world to that of pre-1994 South Africa.
And so I would have loved to be able to see the selection of images that the photographers would have chosen to exhibit in 1994 to represent the apartheid era. But of course, that is not possible.
While 'Then and Now' doesn't suggest the gestält shift you might expect between the two very different countries separated from each other by a decade and a half, it does document another shift, a change in the way the image itself operates. South Africa's initial transformation took place during a seismic alteration in the politics and economics of the planet. The world into which the new South Africa was born has become a world in which the conventional documentary image has, in a sense, lost its power, having drowned in a 21st century of visual bombardment, constantly losing ground to the extremes of real-time internet postings.
This is particularly true in South Africa, where media content pre-1990 was strictly controlled by the authorities, and in ways that were infinitely more pervasive than most people imagine or remember. The result, as many of the photographers acknowledged, is that they have become more concerned with the process of photography. But, as they have all come to realise, the horrors are far from over, and history lingers, like the bad breath of a particularly vehement hangover.
Finally, I should mention that the catalogue's cover separated from its body almost immediately. When a project is filled with so much love and rigorous devotion, it's a great pity that it is let down by poor bookbinding.
Peter Machen is a freelance arts journalist and an artist. He is author of the book 'Durban � A Paradise and its People'.
Opens: March 20
Closes: April 20
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