By Aarti wa Njoroge | AfricanColours.com
The welcoming photograph of the ‘Figures and Fictions’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London pushes all the buttons of the title. The seemingly blank eyes of the white, middle-aged, but not middle class, couple contrast with the woman’s intimate holding of the black toddler’s foot and the man’s arm around her shoulder. What is their story? Why are they together? Can one be presumptuous to think the little boy is an “AIDS orphan”? Is it that they are just not used to being photographed, given how squashed he is, how unrelaxed they all appear? Or is fiction playing itself out in this fast-paced interpretation?
'Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa' (2006) | Pieter Hugo | Courtesy of 'weblog.liberatormagazine.com'
In fact, as I discover later, the couple in Pieter Hugo’s ‘Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa’ (2006) was renting a room in the servants’ quarters from Timana’s father, jailed by this time, and looking after Timana like their own son (page 274, ‘Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography’, Steidl and Victoria & Albert Publishing).
Walking through the exhibition, one is struck by other highly contrived images. Indeed, one of the two curators, Tamar Garb, asked of Terry Kurgan, ‘Staging and posing is so crucial to photographic portraiture, isn’t it?’
Kurgan’s response was ‘Absolutely. People pose. There’s the distinct language of the pose. You’ll see [...] through the photographs that there are a range of ways in which people pose, and they unconsciously imitate these sorts of conventions’ (page 278, ibid).
This recurring ‘language’ troubles me. Including that of the Zulus from the Shembe community in Zwelethu Mthethwa’s ‘The Brave Ones’ series, all the more so because they are taken out of the ritualistic context in which they normally wear these shirts, ties, short kilt-like skirts, football socks and unlaced boots. Here they look as if they are in an exploitative luxury western fashion house’s advertisement!
Zwelethu Mthethwa’s ‘The Brave Ones' Series, (2011)
The influence of western dress for ceremonial use recurs in Pieter Hugo’s photograph of young Xhosa men in tweeds after their initiation. (Did Harris & Co create the same ruckus when this practice started as Kenyans did recently when one western designer ‘stole’ the Maasai shuka (itself modelled on tartan) for his latest collection?)
Kudzanai Chiurai emulates Seydou Keita in his ‘The Parliament’ (or ‘The Black President’) series. Three figures, elaborately and satirically dressed, look to the right, ‘The Minister of Finance’ into his vanity mirror, ‘The President’ and ‘The Minister of Education’ into the air. The other photographs (published in the book) become more ridiculous, more sinister, with the use of a cigar, ghetto blaster, (another) fly whisk and gun, an ‘African’ top and hat, and skulls, representing Enterprise, Arts and Culture, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Health respectively.
|The Black president, (2009)||The Minister of Education, (2009)|
|The Minister of Finance, (2009)|
Others do not have fictitious props, and have real professions exposing them to real dangers. Hugo’s ‘The Hyena and Other Men’, ‘Wild Honey Collectors’ and a worker at a grim technology waste dump (all taken in west Africa), look directly at the viewers, yet in poses no less manufactured.
In contrast, the charm of the discarded images Terry Kurgan buys from park photographers is often in the innocence of the subjects. This is heightened when an improbable backdrop (the sea, even though we are clearly not on the beach) is put on the grass.
Other evidently posed portraits have pathos because of the meaningless of the sitters’ occupation. The ‘Security’ series by Mikhael Subotzky depicts guards in Johannesburg. Of course black men up and down sub-Saharan Africa are employed by the middle and upper classes of all races to protect life and property, but ‘Street Party’ (2008) harks back to apartheid, with a watchman (slumped) on a chair barely two metres away from an all-white group in an otherwise deserted street as the sun is setting, closed gates in the background.
'Street Party'-Mikhael Subotzky (2008) | Courtesy of africasacountry.com
Indeed, to understand this selection of photography from 2000 to 2010, one must see David Goldblatt’s apartheid era work in room 38A at the V&A. (Maybe one should wait thirty years or more to look at contemporary photos in order to appreciate their aesthetic and socio-political value.)
The large digital pictures by all the photographers in ‘Figures and Fictions’, where Goldblatt also features, contrast with his fragile earlier prints, both physically and historically. Goldblatt’s letter in 1987, donating photographs to the V&A to ensure their safety, ‘considering their vulnerability to destruction’, is a testimony to the tension of the time.
In ‘At the Soccer Club Final’ (Soweto, 1972), black people are cramped behind a wire fence as a ‘Life is Great’-branded car drives past them in the stadium. A black guard holds onto a German shepherd which is staring into the camera, like the hyena in Pieter Hugo’s ‘Mallam Galadima Ahmadu with Jamis’ (printed in the book) from the 2005 ‘The Hyena and Other Men’ series. A white opthamologist – on the other hand – tests the eyes of a black clergyman in Boksburg twenty five years before, under the auspices of a charity. A white politician stares out of his car, the vehicle over-exposed to make the scene more dream-like, more chilling.
At the Soccer Cup Final, Soweto, (1972), David Goldblatt | Courtesy of we-make-money-not-art.com
Turning the clock forward to ‘Figures and Fictions’, the portrait ‘Hennie Gerber’ is equally sobering, but only when one reads the context. What may look like a slightly portly middle-aged white man standing in some trees turns out to be a former policeman and security manager who served fourteen years of a twenty year sentence for murder. (More overt is the ‘Young Afrikaner – a Self Portrait’ series by Roelof Petrus Van Wyck.)
If one image epitomises the crossroads of tradition and modernity, it is Graeme Williams’ ‘Marquard’ (2006). Two women in patterned wraps hold carrier bags in their left hands and on their heads. (There are washing powder adverts here and in ‘Intabazwe Township’, part of the same ‘The Edge of Town’ series.)
An image from Graeme Williams’ The Edge of Town' series (2006) | Courtesy of graemewilliams.co.za
Williams’ subjects do not look at the camera; their expressions range from thoughtful, questioning and threatening to joyful and triumphant. No contextualising here, and in his interview with Tamar Garb, published in the book, he acknowledges a ‘hit and run’ approach, though he did later interact with his subjects, but only after he had shot them.
One subject that perhaps most closely resembles a break-point in South Africa’s modern history is sexuality. With a populist ‘alpha male’ president, fears and stories of ‘curative’ or ‘corrective’ rape on the BBC (30 June 2011) and yet a constitution forbidding discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, the photographs of Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni are all the more politicised. AIDS orphans, the result of denial at its more destructive, are portrayed in Santu Mofokeng’s ‘Child-Headed Households’ series. Like the film ‘Life, Above All’ (2010), it is important to document these stories from within. Only then is there a chance of overcoming the scourge of that denial.
Finally, the most abstract series, Bernie Searle’s two triptychs, ‘Once Removed’, brings the whole exhibition together. Both triptychs, the ‘bleeding’ crown on Searle’s head and other her ‘blood-stained’ legs, could be representative of a betrayed Christ. The violence of South Africa’s recent history – the thorns have gone, but have they left blood in their place? Or has the blood dissolved?
Once Removed (Head) I, II, III. (2008) | Courtesy of bernisearle.com
Once Removed (Head) I, II, III. (2008) | Courtesy of bernisearle.com
‘Figures and Fictions’ is on show from 12th April until 17th July, 2011, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. More info on the exhibition and artists on the V&A Museum website.
Posted By: Allan Kapten
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