Cape Town sees the light

The second Month of Photography (MoP) is the core visual-arts element of the Cape Town festival, which begins next week, and current indications are that chaos prevails. No catalogue is available yet, the website is months out of date and funding for some key international participants has just fallen through. Perhaps this has something to do with the tactics adopted by curators Kim Stern and Clair Breukel of the Centre for Photography, who have evidently opted for saturation rather than selection.

It is no simple task to co-ordinate 140 individual exhibitions armed only with vague ideas about inclusiveness and a stunningly naïve theory of the medium. “[Photography’s] recent global ascension” they tell us “can largely be ascribed to its accessibility and the ease with which a photograph can carry a host of potentialities of meaning and content, depending on who is doing the looking… in a culture of 11 languages and a wide-ranging spectrum of so-called ‘cultures’, the photograph can be accessed by everyone”. A more vapid statement of curatorial principle would be hard to find.

The most evident consequence of this approach is that for at least a month it will be impossible to avoid photography in Cape Town. Just about every bar and restaurant between Greenpoint and the Good Hope Centre has been co-opted, and all the galleries will be concentrating on photography. Many of these shows will be bad — badly conceived, badly printed, badly mounted, and badly hung — but they will probably provide a reliable synoptic view of local photography despite all that.

One show in particular to look out for is by the Umlilo collective of street photographers; the visual language of African street photography is beginning to have a global impact and this is an excellent chance to see why.

Away from what amounts to the festival fringe are a number of exhibitions by established local and international artists, and some look very promising indeed.

Finland, where the contemporary art scene is more thoroughly infiltrated by photography than anywhere else, has sent Pentti Sammallhatti who will be exhibiting at the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) in Church street. Sammallhatti works with a Widelux panoramic camera to produce unsettling but accessible

images of northern landscapes populated only by dogs. No coy Wegemann Weimaraners here though, Sammallhatti seems to limn an alternative present where the world slips on its axis and the traces of remaining humanity are already memorials.

Upstairs at the AVA is a new static movie from Johnny Foreigner, which will no doubt sit strangely alongside Sammallhatti’s immaculate silver gelatin prints, but should offer flashes of lyricism and humour.

Dave Southwood is at the Bell- Roberts Gallery with one of the most promising shows on the MoP calendar. Nothing in the Particular is dominated by large-format landscapes in which Southwood’s formal control and conceptual rigour are strongly in evidence. There is a lot more to this work than art-historical polemic, but it will hopefully work as corrective to the vast acreage given over to shows celebrating the casually sentimental tendency in South African photography.

One major disappointment is the last-minute withdrawal of support for an exhibition by South African- born land artist, sculptor and photographer Neville Gaby. Apparently MoP organisers were expecting funding from the British Council, but according to officials for the council no such commitment was made; the long and short of it is that Gaby and portraitist Michelle Slack will be staying home. This reduces the British invasion to Joy Gregory, who last exhibited in this country at the Johannesburg biennale in 1995. Her rather more than usually subtle negotiations of identity politics irritate all the right people in London and her work looks intriguing.

In a similar vein, Bernie Searle is the invited South African artist. It seems a slightly strange choice — Searle is known for her multimedia and performance work rather than photography as such — but it will be interesting to see what she does with the charged and productive spaces of the Castle.

Of course March 20 is Art Night and it looks like this year’s event will be a supercharged version of the perennially popular citywide art party. With a public holiday the next day and a number of the exhibitions actually in clubs and bars, it should be a dizzy, dizzy night downtown.

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