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A Photo Is Still Worth More Than A Thousand Words

A Photo Is Still Worth More Than A Thousand Words
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2012

Two exhibitions of South African photography recently came to the British capital, London, where Juliet Highet went to see them. She was bowled over.

It is a bit like London buses – you wait for ages – and then two come at once. Two exhibitions of contemporary South African photography hit London recently.

The first, rather enigmatically titled Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, shot by some of the most ground-breaking, brave and creative photographers working and living in the country today, was also the first major exhibition of images to be shown in the UK in the last 10 years.

The collection, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, had over 150 works by 17 photographers. It presented the dynamic yet subtle, uber-sophisticated photographic culture that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa.

The second exhibition, Wembley to Soweto, is a poignant and powerful photo-journey, shot by disadvantaged teenagers from the townships of Johannesburg. With the support of Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Kweku, this exhibition at the gallery@oxo, displayed 60 images capturing the spirit of the young people’s homeland, their take on its triumphs and tragedies.

As Kweku Mandela says: “There is no better way to communicate across cultures than with images which take your breath away. One photo can change a life – these kids are an example of that.”

Emerging from the leaden past of apartheid South Africa, a new generation of inspired and, unsurprisingly, politically and socially engaged photographers has been born, whose work is at the cutting edge of the artform globally today.

Photography was introduced to South Africa in the mid-19th century. Its evolution to its current position at the forefront of critical art practice speaks volumes about commitment and consciousness in the country today.

It is splendidly celebrated in the large format, heavyweight book Figures & Fiction, which will stand the test of time after the exhibitions are over, though annoyingly, it lacks an index. Both these exhibitions focus on figural photography, depicting people within their community, family and individual lives, some proudly displaying their cross-gender identities or their street fashion; others hauntingly memorable, like the sibling families of children and teens in impoverished circumstances, their lives blighted by Aids which killed their parents.

But Santu Mufokeng’s series Child-Headed Households, is somehow not despondent – they are faring as best they can in a new reality, and neither are Aids victims depicted directly.

Nineteenth-century photography of people in South Africa ranged from voyeuristic “portraits” (generally with ample bottoms), to anthropological studies of ethnic types, depicting them, as expected, as “tribal curiosities”.

Indeed, leaping forward, with the implementation of apartheid under National Party rule (1948-94), photography was used by the state to control racial classification. But it also documented resistance, and activists used it in the struggle against apartheid as a potent communicative medium. As post-apartheid euphoria has calmed down, the country’s photographers are responding to the challenges of modern political realities, as well as the continuing poverty and health problems. However, many of the people who have been posed or “captured” on film, exude dignity, and joie de vivre.

There is also a great deal of courage around, for instance in Zanele Muholi’s work, which addresses the reality of what it is like to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). Although gay rights are now part of the South African constitution, in her series Beulahs, Muholi, an activist, confronts the difficulties this community still faces.

And there is humour too in contemporary South African photography, sometimes gently mocking, like Mikhael Subotsky’s seminal image of a street party for wealthy whites, at which a security guard sits at some distance – in every way; and the picture also shows their garden sheds or “Wendy houses” in which some of the guards live, and lovely white roses blooming in the foreground.

At times the humour is satirical in the overtly self-critical series titled The Parliament, in which Kudzanai Chiurai slyly critiques modern political power by depicting fictitious characters of an imaginary government cabinet. His Minister of Finance is dressed in a floor-length fur coat, gold chain and what looks suspiciously like a knuckle-duster. He is regarding his gold teeth in a mirror.

Intensely “now”, these photographs draw on hip-hop, fashion, and soap opera, as well as period African studio portraiture. The Minister of Education carries the requisite (large) books and (leather) briefcase, a revolver tucked into his belt.

The post-apartheid period and the emergence of a new generation of photographers has coincided with international recognition of the medium as an art form. “Artistic” rather than purely documentary the South African version certainly is, although it is striking that far from self-indulgent experimentation, it is a medium used to powerfully explore identity across race, gender, economics and politics.

All the photographers in both exhibitions question what it is to be human in South Africa. Seventeen of them at the V & A range from established practitioners like David Goldblatt to new kids on the block. Goldblatt has been practising in South Africa since the late 1940s, documenting its social, cultural and economic divides. In his Refugees from Zimbabwe sheltering in the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg, a mass of sleeping bodies is either huddled like foetuses in pews, or awkwardly thrusting a leg upward, as if from a dismembered body.

Another generation is represented by the internationally published Pieter Hugo, whose disturbing photojournalism, he states, is “a type of ecstatic experience where one looks at the pictures and one experiences truth, even if it’s not the truth of an accountant.”

Way off the balance sheet and raising questions about race and family, is his group portrait of a clearly impoverished, ageing white couple sitting on a disused car seat, with him clutching a prosthetic leg, and her tenderly holding a little black boy.

Emerging now are photographers like Hasan and Husain Essop, who explore contradictions between modernity and tradition, Islam and their largely secular country. They depict aspects of local Muslim life in their grisly series Halal Art, in which animals are slaughtered in Halal style.

They formally construct these images, and then digitally excise any figural representation except of themselves, so as not to contravene Muslim teaching.

The youngest photographers exhibiting at Wembley to Soweto are eight teenagers from Soweto’s Umuzi Photo Club, who were taught the fundamentals of the medium so that they could begin to “feed their families with their cameras”.

The journey from Wembley to Soweto literally began at Wembley Stadium in 1988 at the Free Nelson Mandela concert. Professional photographer John Cole shot an iconic image of a sea of well-wishers, which is now displayed in Mandela’s Johannesburg home. Twenty-two years later, Cole joined actor/film producer David Westhead to run an intensive photography course, amongst whose students were those eight teenagers.

Cole says: “I feel hugely privileged to have worked with these very talented young people, and without a doubt this has been one of the most rewarding, satisfying and absolutely fun projects that I have ever worked on.”

When film producer Kweku Mandela, who is currently making two documentaries – Mandela’s Children and The Mandela Project – came on board the photo project, it helped to raise its profile and credibility.

Now a second iconic image, of the 2010 South Africa World Cup kick-off concert shot by “Captain” Kgaugelo, a Photo Club student, hangs beside the first one in Nelson Mandela’s house.

David Westhead raised funds for the project with donations from international media celebrities, and cameras from Nikon and Tesco.

The London exhibition was funded by the management firm, Maitland, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF), with which it works.

Westhead says: “It’s great to give money to anonymous billions – but to show someone face-to-face the innate talent they possess, is one of life’s great rewards, on both sides of the equation.”

Pictures by the teenagers of the diverse realities of their lives include their families at home in Soweto, edgy street markets and parties, a rocking celebration at a Soweto Baptist Church service, and the damaged bare feet of a vagrant with painfully overgrown toenails.

The students have gone from strength to strength. Some of them, still at school, have won scholarships to top schools, or bursaries to study at the College of Digital Photography in Johannesburg. Others have exhibited in galleries in New York City (USA) and Antwerp (Belgium) as well as Johannesburg, the sales proceeds buying 200 chairs for a Soweto school, and a new plumbing system for another.

Photographers Thapelo, Joao and “Captain” have had fashion photos published in Marie Claire and other magazines. Thapelo was commissioned to shoot images of the South African Parliament in Cape Town, travelling by plane for the first time in his life. Contemporary South African photography is flying!

(Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography is published by Steidl and V&A, ISBN 978-3-86930-9)

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