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'Rising Up Together'

Gille de Vlieg at Durban Art Gallery

By Rike Sitas
02 September - 23 September. 0 Comment(s)
Braklaagte women break into a spontaneous dance after signing a petition against incorporation into the Bophuthatswana 'homeland'  Black and white photographs

Gille de Vlieg
Braklaagte women break into a spontaneous dance after signing a petition against incorporation into the Bophuthatswana 'homeland' Black and white photographs, . black and white photograph .

'The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say, "There is the surface. Now think - or rather feel, intuit - what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks that way."' (Sontag)


In the tumultuous 1980s in South Africa, Gille de Vlieg, a Black Sash anti-apartheid activist, began documenting what was going on around her. The camera became a vehicle through which to capture and represent what was happening in one of the more volatile times in South Africa’s recent history. In 1984 she joined Afrapix alongside other prominent struggle photographers such as Paul Weinberg and Omar Badsha (amongst many others). Unlike many of her counterparts, de Vlieg received little public acclaim for her work up until now.


The 1980s was a significant period in South Africa’s history, in many places something akin to civil war was more than bubbling under the surface. The government declared several states of emergency and the fabric of apartheid began increasingly to rupture. The controversial work of ‘The Bang Bang Club’ in the early '90s focused on documenting township and hostel violence and police brutality, and has reached some degree of notoriety recently as a Hollywood production. In contrast, De Vlieg’s work shows the everyday realities of living and struggling under apartheid rule. This exhibition includes a number of photographs of urban and rural life, politics and struggle under apartheid in the '80s. Unlike a great deal of fleeting photojournalism, de Vlieg’s images display an intimacy that compels the viewer to wonder what the reality must be like beyond the image.

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In contrast to de Vlieg’s previous exhibition at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, this collection of black and white photographs has not been curated chronologically, but has instead been collated thematically. These thematic collections have been juxtaposed with art from the Durban Art Gallery’s permanent collection. What emerges is a series of conversations about the relationship between art and activism in the 1980s. Implicit in this is a reflection on how the struggle can be read and represented from a contemporary perspective. Although these photographs were taken in the 1980s, many of the scenes can still be found in South Africa today, providing a stark reminder of the challenges that still face South Africa.


'Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context in which it has been seen.' (Sontag)

The images themselves, the conversations that have been curated, and the subject matter seen through a contemporary lens are all important in understanding this exhibition. I would therefore like to engage three moments and conversations from the exhibition to advocate how photography can be used as critical devices in engaging with our realities.

The first collection of photographs explores the relationship between people and the land. The show starts with Lesego Makganye tending the soil on his land, alongside displaced Leeufontein residents, sitting, waiting. These have been placed alongside Menzi Mchunu’s untitled work dealing with forced removals, Norman Catherine’s Waiting Room, Paul Sibisi’s Despair… and Bongiwe Dhlomo’s Removals I-VII. The Group Areas Act ensured that many people were dislocated from their land and moved, predominantly to places that were not suitable for farming. This impact on livelihoods had a profound effect on many South Africans and, in response, labour became more migratory in order to serve ‘white’-owned industries. Overwhelmingly, in this collection, people are waiting, an image that has not changed significantly enough since 1994. People are still waiting for jobs, land redistribution and sustainable livelihoods. South Africa has recently beaten Brazil as the country with the highest wealth disparities, and this collection of images provides a stark reminder of how far we have to go in addressing the inequalities ravaged by colonialism and apartheid.


Another striking collection of works engages the subtleties of gesture. De Vlieg has captured poignant moments of movement. Bishop Desmond Tutu stands, arms outstretched, condemning the practice of ‘necklacing’ at a funeral. Women break into a celebratory dance after signing a petition. A clinic is opened to much celebration as it marks a victory in the resistance against forced removal. These images all speak of the body’s role in expressing resistance. They are liberatory stances that have somewhat religious connotations in certain instances. Interestingly, they have been placed next to an image of an AWB celebration at the Voortrekker Memorial. Here the stance is also celebratory (albeit more militaristically). Curated next to each other, the images become the antithesis of each other – we are guided to read the images historically in the space where two (often violently) competing ideologies intersect. Despite the connotations we read from a post-apartheid South Africa of the fascist architecture, iconography and ideology, the photo of the AWB supporters is still humanizing. De Vlieg’s images depict moments in South African history with a sensitivity sometimes absent from journalistic images in which the intention is public shock. It is images such as these that encourage us to look beyond the surface of which Sontag speaks.


The same can be said of some of the more brutal images. De Vlieg’s images also represent the violent impact that resistance to apartheid had on human bodies. Two portraits tell stories of police brutality: Mrs Mazibuko holds her son’s bloody t-shirt after he was killed by the police, and a boy with two broken arms lifts his shirt to show the marks left by a police beating. Another photograph shows an image of Paulos Mohobane who had been beaten with a sjambok by paid municipal vigilantes. Unlike some of the gonzo anti-apartheid journalism during the 80s and 90s that are captured on the fly, De Vlieg’s subjects look directly into the camera. Although the images show damage, the expressions suggest resounding conviction – they have not been broken by the violence inflicted on their bodies. The way the photographs have been constructed do not depict victims, and the way they have been placed alongside each other speak of solidarity despite the brutality of apartheid. De Vlieg acknowledges this in the catalogue for the show: 'I was thrown back on myself as I came to realize that, even when people were battered, bruised and bereft, a spirit still always shone through saying "I am here! I will not be defeated. Even this will be overcome!"'

 

In parting, one image sticks out. It is an image of hope and a reminder to society of how creativity can be instrumental in transforming our lived realities. The image is of three children sitting in 'The Garden of Peace'. This was one of the community-driven 'People’s Parks' projects that saw communities working together to transform public spaces into liveable places.