Out of The Cube

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Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

Various Artists at Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)

By Carli Coetzee
12 April - 17 July. 0 Comment(s)
Installation view of 'Figures & Fictions'

Various Artists
Installation view of 'Figures & Fictions', 2011. Digital print .

The exhibition 'Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography' showcases the recent work of 17 photographers living and working in South Africa, and their projects have been chosen on two grounds – because of the artists’ engagement with South Africa’s political and photographic past, and because they are photographs of people.  The choice of works thus emphasises that the body in South Africa (its classification, its representation) has a particular history.  But it also suggests that there are ways out of these traditions that have so long determined the way that South African bodies are lived and viewed. 

The exhibition space is organised with opposite walls painted in dark purple and white, the works grouped by artist. Although a small booklet is handed out as one enters the exhibition, providing short biographies and project summaries of the 17 artists (also reproduced on the wall at the beginning of each artist’s section), the extensive catalogue is a much more engaging accompaniment to the exhibition.

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The first work one encounters is by Pieter Hugo: Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa. The work forces the viewer to remember South Africa’s embodied past; the two ageing and broken white bodies cradling the healthy black infant in a nativity scene that heralds the new order. The reason for the choice of this work as the keynote piece seems to be that it summarises the passing of the old order (dominated by white bodies), and manifests the new. This is signified not only by the small and healthy black body but, significantly, by the connections between these bodies. The eyes of all three stare at the viewer (who is standing, of course, very close to where the photographer stood); they seem to be composing themselves for us, trying to please us. 

On one level, then, the work can be seen as a fairly straightforward metaphor for things passing, the old order ending. Yet there are more bodies implicated in this image: the direct eye contact with the three subjects forces the viewer to consider also her own body and its relation to the subjects, as well as to consider that of the photographer. Their vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, forcing us to contemplate the intimate scene in which they allowed themselves to be photographed. Learning that the boy is not their adopted son, but the child of their landlord, also allows us to read the image differently – and to confront us with our expectations of what this image might signify.   

The exhibition unsettles and challenges the viewer’s position, and it is part of its intention to do so. In the interviews and artists’ statements that are included in the catalogue, we encounter a set of reflections on the camera and its histories in South Africa. Some of these traditions and histories concern what the pamphlet calls 'the ethics and poetics of picturing people' – and of course also includes the ethics and poetics of consuming such pictures. The catalogue is not merely a collection of these positions; the individual artists’ pieces, read together with Tamar Garb’s illuminating discussion of these traditions, makes an intervention in the discussion. The catalogue collects the beginnings of a conversation about representing the body, one that can inform practice as well as theory.

Many works thematise identity as performance, often revealing an intimate connection between subject and photographer. Zanele Muholi’s work is described as visual activism: in a society where same sex relationships are enshrined in the constitution, the lived reality is often different. Her portraits draw on the conventions of portraiture, but the series 'Faces and Phases' insists on the activist work that depicting, as well as viewing, can be. Hasan and Husain Essop talk of the lack of pictorial traditions in their Islamic childhood home, and in Halaal Art they perform versions of local Muslim life, creating a form which engages with precisely those rules against making this kind of art.  

Zwelethu Mthethwa, photographing young men from the Shembe religious community in their colourful ceremonial dress, says in the interview included in the catalogue that he prefers his subjects to 'look at the camera', to 'return the gaze': 'That for me comes from the fact that in South Africa the gaze is a political thing. In South Africa, where black people were seen as non-citizens, they were not allowed to return the gaze, but for me when they stare back it’s like they are saying, "I am here, I have the power to look at you. You are looking at me, but I am also looking at you". Mthethwa’s work critiques one-sided ways of looking, but importantly does not relegate these gazes to the past. The viewer, as she walks through, is held to account also for her responses to the work, and to the subjects’ insistence on returning the gaze.

Sabelo Mlangeni’s work documents what the catalogue calls 'overlooked subcultures and communities'.But rather than drawing our attention to spectacle, he excavates the ordinariness and daily intimacies of the communities he depicts. Similar in intent is the work of Santu Mofokeng, in particular his series 'Child-Headed Households', depicting the shifting relationships between siblings who live in domestic groups after the HIV-related death of their parents.

In the project that goes under the signature of Terry Kurgan, the work of a community of 'street' photographers is documented. Kurgan has produced a map of Joubert Park, showing the location of photographic studios in the park, thus recognising the near-permanence of these photographers’ presences in the park. Included in this section of the exhibition is a series of portraits of some of these photographers, each holding his or her camera, and accompanied by text (as part of the image, not as a separate label) giving biographical information and how long they have been working in the park. An extra exhibit includes (in small format, and easy to miss unless one has read the catalogue first) unclaimed photographs by some of these artists; an unofficial archive of private memory.The project can be interpreted as a contribution to the history of photography, linked to Santu Mofokeng’s series The Black photo album/Look At Me: 1890-1950.

Among the photographs by David Goldblatt included in this exhibition are two pairs of works interested in labour of another kind. Goldblatt has responded to (and photographed) the advertisements of artisans (tilers, painters, builders), and photographs both the advertisement and the man in his place of work.  There are parallels with Goldblatt’s own practice (and its insistence on the information included with each photograph) - a viewer familiar with Goldblatt’s work may well relate the labour of the photographer to the labour of his subject. In this way, the photographs are much more than a documentation of itinerant workers; it can be read as a commentary on the significance of various kinds of labour and their histories in South Africa.

Guy Tillim’s and Graeme Williams’s photographs attempt to find a visual language to express the unsettling gaze of which the exhibition wants us to be aware. In Williams’s 'The Edge of Town' series, images are framed and cropped to make them near unreadable, such as in Marquard, South Africa (2006) where a health information poster covers the face of the man who seems to be the subject of the photograph. Guy Tillim’s 'Petros Village' series includes some photographs in which sticks, strings, and elastic bands are the main subject, the human presence sometimes only a limb on the edge of the frame.

In Berni Searle’s self-portraits her face is veiled, the seeping colour of the paper flowers indicating a somewhat threatening absence. The works are arresting and engaging, but perhaps she gains the least of all the artists by being included in the collective argument of the exhibition. Searle’s work uses her own body in a way that does not necessarily draw on traditions of portraiture, her often faceless self-portraits engaging with collective (and often suppressed) memories of the body. The interview with her in the catalogue, describing her working methods with polaroids, is illuminating in terms of how she sets up her works of art.

The series of anthropometric-style portraits by Roelof van Wyk, 'Young Afrikaner – a Self Portrait', dominates the last wall of the exhibition. The portraits are hard to interpret, drawing at once on advertising images and their smooth beauty, and the typologies of photographers like August Sander. On one hand, the nakedness of the subjects (and the great expanses of pink skin) insists on a seemingly international language of 'beauty' (an idea Jodi Bieber interrogates in her adjacent series). On the other, while the title insists that the series is informed by portraiture, its formal conventions of profile, back and side views encourages a contextualising gaze drawn from ethnography. Useful in this regard is a comment van Wyk makes in the interview in the catalogue, on traditions not only of representing but of viewing. Looking at earlier anthropological images of South Africans, he says, it is possible to see not only humiliation and dehumanisation, but to meet the gaze of the people depicted and to see them as individuals with subjectivity and individuality. In many ways, he challenges the viewer to do the same with the 'Afrikaner tribe' he is exploring here.

The collection of artists’ statements in the catalogue creates a new archive complementing (and interrogating) the visual works on display, and going some way towards theorising new ways of representing the body, and reflecting on those representations. These new positions are themselves often embodied. Zanele Muholi talks about the asymmetrical access white and black photographers have had to communities other than their own, in a paragraph about stealing and stolen glances; Zwelethu Mthethwa talks of the significance of the subject returning the gaze (and it is striking how many of the images in the exhibition do lock their eye on the viewer/photographer position), and the importance of the image being exhibited in a large, life-size format (and presumably in galleries such as the present one).

In this way, many of the photographers in the exhibition assume that their work will lead the viewer to question her own initial responses.  The photograph that unsettled me the most was Pieter Hugo’s Kwadwo Konado, Wild Honey Collector, Techiman District Ghana (2005), a work that at first viewing so clearly referenced torture and pain. Reading the label, however, made it clear that the black plastic bag was the protective garment of a beekeeper, going about his ordinary work. Thus the viewer is forced to interrogate her own spectacular assumptions, and the exhibition insists on what Njabulo Ndebele has called the 'rediscovery of the ordinary' – a text that informs the project in a number of ways. 

Viewed as a whole, these works are not a coherent group. However, that seems to be the intention of the curatorial project. The exhibition makes a number of references to the larger series these works are taken from, drawing attention to the fragmentary nature of what we see, and presenting an intervention in the histories and traditions of thinking about and depicting the body in South Africa. On the V&A’s online  channel of exhibition and collection-related material (http://www.vam.ac.uk/channel/people/photography/figures_and_fictions) are video interviews with some of the artists, as well as one with curator Tamar Garb, in which she talks autobiographically of the body and its histories, and also reflects on what she calls in the catalogue 'the perfect tense'; the business of the past never over and done with. The exhibition insists on much that is new, in the way we look and are looked at; but it does this in a way that calls us to take note of the past and to account for our own relationship to these traditions. Framed as it is here in the V&A, the exhibition may be understood in ways that make it just possible to view as part of an unchallenging visit to a decorative arts museum; with the thought-provoking catalogue in hand, however, this is impossible to do. 

Co-editor (with Sarah Nuttall) of 'Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa', Carli Coetzee teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.