Looking in from the outside

South African photographer Pieter Hugo, Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Visual Art 2007, falls into the white, upper-to-middle-class, Afrikaans, heterosexual male demographic.

Hugo sees himself as an outsider looking into pockets of culture in South and Southern Africa and abroad. He states: “I’m white, I’m African, but I have mixed feelings towards communities, so I look at them.”

And look at them he does. He travels almost obsessively, pulling himself outside his comfort zone as a means of isolating himself, which he says heightens his observation.

In his exhibition — on show at Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival in the Monument Gallery — Hugo’s massive photographic prints, mounted on to aluminum, focus on the town formerly known as Messina.

The northernmost town, situated on the Limpopo River, bordering South Africa and Zimbabwe, was renamed in 2002, according to the correct spelling of the Musina people, who previously inhabited the region. Hugo’s decision to include both the old and the new official names in the title of his show, Messina/ Musina heightens one’s expectations of transformation, or at least some kind of tension created by an attempt at change.

South African photography is inherently political and Hugo, born in 1976 and having experienced the tail end of apartheid, emanates a political sensibility that expresses a new politics of economic division.

Despite popular media perception of the town’s border symptoms — such as smuggling conglomerates and illegal aliens — Hugo has focused on the peripheral town, which hosts a small hunting and mining community. And, as in most small towns, one expects to see a variety of disparate people and landscapes.

Made up predominantly of family portraits of black and white residents, the exhibition also features isolated, almost derelict landscapes, scarred and trashed by poverty, as well as a few still-lifes representative of dearth.

Hugo’s style, reminiscent of contemporary German photographer Thomas Ruff, seems to fall somewhere between documentary, fine art and advertising. His images are stark with a constructed documentary slant and outstanding technical ability.

The context of the portraits, however, appears to swing between beautiful, sensitive and reverent moments, such as in Jan, Martie, Kayala, Florence and Basil Meyer in their Home — a family sitting on a couch in their voorkamer, in front of a wall covered with portraits and hangings — to quite stark, directed and tightly cropped detailed portraits such as Gustaf, Maureen, Koos and Marco Louw in their Home — a family with two boys in matching T-shirts, their hair quite obviously combed to one side for the portrait, seated on a couch stripped of any additional context.

In the former, there is a distinct and critical distance between the sitters — who emanate a self-dignity — and the positioning of the camera. In the latter, the camera is much closer to the sitters, which creates an invasive effect, verging on problematic. The main focus of these extreme close-ups is quite obviously the details of sitters’ skin, such as the boys’ dirty feet and warts on their knees and texture of clothing indicating the stresses and scars of poverty. Similarly, in the Manebaneba Family Portrait — an almost religious image — the deliberately tight cropping and high angle makes the viewer acutely aware of the photographer’s presence and perspective.

With the photographer’s presence so palpably present in the portraits — and interestingly absent in the vacant landscapes — one cannot help but question his intentions and the manner in which he focuses so intently and intensely on a town and community quite different from his own.

One can argue that the subjectivity one might find in a portrait photograph is that of the photographer, and the model becomes the ideal screen for the expression of the artist-photographer.

Hugo’s images are subject to myriad presuppositions by viewers and I can see why his work has been compared with that of Roger Ballen. Both photographers have portrayed an unequivocal dialogue with poor underprivileged people. But I feel that the difference between Hugo’s stylised documentary and Ballen’s theatrical surrealism places them in separate camps.

Messina/Musina is on at the Monument Gallery in Grahamstown until July 7. Hugo’s work also forms part of the exhibition Family Relation at the Warren Siebrits Gallery, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg until August 8. Tel: (011) 327 0000

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