Three ways of seeing

‘Are you the big grey wall?”

You can almost hear the words, spoken into a cellphone, by someone driving a car; presumably he or she is making his or her way through a white suburb, trying to find someone’s house. Those six words alone instantly conjure up a whole scenario. They are from Double Negative, Ivan Vladislavic’s new novel, which comes packaged with a magnificent collection of David Goldblatt’s photographs of Jo’burg and its denizens, titled TJ—as in the old vehicle registration for Johannesburg, Transvaal.

Double Negative
will have to await a proper review; all I can say at this point is that it is in some way a dialogue with Goldblatt’s photos, and that it features a young man who is sort of apprenticed to, or just tags along with, a photographer called Saul Auerbach. (The Mail & Guardian’s well-educated readers won’t need reminding that another Auerbach, Erich, wrote a seminal work on artistic representation called Mimesis.)

The photographs in TJ are a sample taken, you might say, athwart the Goldblatt oeuvre or archive: a slice through time and through the city of Johannesburg and its surrounds, a kind of geology of the visual. Goldblatt has always been extraordinarily sensitive to the built space, and here are vistas of the city from high and low, from the aerial evidence of urbanisation to the textures of breakage and decay, as in the toilet of the Docrat family’s house in Fietas-Pageview, stubbornly still standing like a mute sculptural monument to the forced removals of 1977.

Compare this unintended monument with the blankly ‘authoritarian” planes of Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown today.

In some places in TJ, using pictures taken over a full six decades, Goldblatt explicitly pairs old and new images of a particular place—a place that is and isn’t the same place. Goldblatt is fascinated by the smaller signs of how people have made space for themselves in the changing, stratified, ‘jagged” environment of Jo’burg, but no more so than in the people themselves: the faces and bodies that present themselves to Goldbatt’s eye as irreducibly ­individual presences.

At the risk of sounding tacky, the TJ/Double Negative package (published by Umuzi) is the gift for the M&G reader this Christmas.

Johannesburg was the scene of Paul Stopforth’s historic Deaths in Detention exhibition at the Market Theatre in 1978, his hard-hitting representation of what apartheid’s enforcers did to people. He (and the Wits mountaineering club) set a ghostly Falling Man on the Market’s gable; later he made almost exquisite drawings of torturers’ faces and of the wounds they inflicted.

Now Stopforth lives in a kind of exile (the word used by one essayist) in the United States, and his more recent work is very different. Not only does it ‘return” to the painting that seemed irrelevant, no longer useful, in the 1970s—you’d almost say it was the work of a different ­artist altogether.

Most of his works of the 1990s and 2000s have a strange serenity, contemplating as they do the surfaces of rocks and the like in paint made from (in this instance at least) milk and lime. Yet, even in these paintings, there’s something faintly unsettling about Stopforth’s frank juxtaposition of the abstract and the pictorial. But then he seems to have mastered every technique and to be beholden to none in particular. (There may also be a postmodern rejection, here, of the superficially unified oeuvre.) There are the sombre textures of ‘relics” from Robben Island, but there are also colourful, densely stippled works with boldly graphic images atop the decorative surface, in a visual game that speaks of limits, or of in-betweenness, with a certain ­playful wit.

Paul Stopforth, in the David Krut Taxi series, demonstrates clearly how changeable an artist Stopforth has always been. Like the other volumes in this important and thankfully still growing series, an overview of the artist’s work is offered, with plenty of striking images alongside essays (four substantial but readable pieces) on an intriguing body of work.

An older artist, Alexis Preller (1911-1975), also worked in a kind of in-between space: an imaginary realm where he tried to meld figurations of Africa and the language of European modernism, ­especially surrealism.

As the recent and rather wonderful Preller retrospective at the Standard Bank Gallery showed, and as Esmé Berman’s ‘visual biography” recounts, he started in the late 1930s with a mildly expressionistic depiction of his world (or of images he thought represented that world), finding in it the exoticism of Gauguin’s Polynesia and, closer to home, Irma Stern’s Africa.

Interestingly (especially for a white South African artist working, later, in the high days of apartheid), Preller maintained that sense of exoticism in his work but, as it were, internalised it. Africa, plus Asia and Greece, or at least Preller’s appropriation and transformation of the shapes he found in such places, hybridised in his visual imagination. His work grew ever more symbolic (or perhaps ‘symbolist”) and less directly representational as he constructed a personal visual language with which to stage his drama of beauty.

Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows (Shelf/Pan Macmillan) was originally part of the limited-edition catalogue of the belated retrospective, and it is a deeply affectionate and appreciative study of the man, the artist, and the work in broad terms. It has all the richness and value of a biography of an artist by someone who knew the artist, who lived through same historical era, and who knows the relevant milieu.

There are many black-and-white images in this beautifully designed book, mostly details of Preller’s pictures. The small colour section only whets the appetite for a volume (like the other part of the retrospective’s catalogue) that would do Preller the visual justice he deserves and introduce his work to a larger audience.

I saw his large All Africa triptych (the book’s colour image is painfully small) in the old Receiver of Revenue building in Jo’burg, about 15 years ago. It was not lit, and seemed grubby, totally ignored. Is it still there? If it is, or if it’s in some government storage basement, it should be located immediately and sent to Iziko.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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