For the month of October galleries and museums around Cape Town have purged themselves of paintings and display cabinets to make way for the sleek panes of framed photographs. It is the fourth Month of Photography (MoP4), a triennial photography festival steered by the South African Centre for Photography, and everyone who’s anyone in the Cape Town gallery scene has jumped on board with related offerings, hoping to catch the overflow from a few central events.
The highlights of MoP4 include a group exhibition at the South African Museum in the Gardens, featuring works by George Hallet, Santu Mofokeng, Tracey Derrick and Sergio Santimano, among others, and the South African National Gallery’s much-anticipated retrospective of American photographer Stephen Shore’s colour photographs recording American landscapes and urban environments since the 1970s. But the hub of the festival is at the Castle of Good Hope, where three group exhibitions of works by local photographers establish the tone of this year’s Month of Photography.
Construct, curated by Heidi Erdman, is a sparse version of her and Jacob Lebeko’s travelling exhibition, Construct: Beyond the Documentary Photograph (currently at the Durban Art Gallery), which aims to foreground the constructedness of the photographic image. Then & Now is a survey of work produced by eight prominent photographers before and after South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994. Emergence & Emergency, hailed as the theme exhibition for MoP4, is curated by Jenny Altschuler and gives voice to young artists’ diagnoses of the difficulties that accompany transformation at both societal and personal levels.
If the extensive programme of MoP4 had to be whittled down to a core issue it would be the illustration of change, a project taken especially seriously in Then & Now and Emergence & Emergency. Then & Now comprises 20 works each from Paul Weinberg, David Goldblatt, Graeme Williams, George Hallet, Eric Miller, Cedric Nunn and Gisèle Wulfsohn. Half of these were taken before 1994 and half after, and each artist’s sets of images are juxtaposed in such a way that they build a recurrent narrative of progress from political angst to banal personal reflection.
Many of the works included in Emergence & Emergency cut straight to the latter, with artists explicitly turning their scrutiny inward into the nature of subjectivity and how this frames the act of photographic looking. Mark Oppenheimer, in a series of photo-collages titled The Process of Unravelling and Reconstructing, cuts and pastes fragments of his subjects’ bodies as a metaphor for showing hospitality towards the other. Hasan and Husain Essop, the new it-boys of photographic self-portraiture, clone images of themselves to critique the conflicts faced when the individual is confronted with plural cultural influences.
A number of other works on show address the persistent marginalisation of certain groups of people even after South Africa is ostensibly “new” and transformed: Brett Rubin’s The State of Freedom is a series of manipulated studio portraits that condemn the mass media for objectifying foreigners living in South Africa, and Buyaphi Mdledle’s documentary photographs of Johannesburg after dark suggest that the contemporary South African city is a transitory, alienating space, particularly for migrant workers.
All of this comes on the back of MoP4’s anxiety to transform its own public image. In the past selection processes for the festival’s curated exhibitions have been built around what have been perceived by many artists as exclusionary criteria: these have ranged from the artists’ participating fee, now optional and pegged at R400, to the whims of an insular selection committee responsible for the show in previous years.
“Because South Africa has a whole history of layers of power, these kind of rules are questioned,” Altschuler says, differentiating MoP4 from its precursors. “I’m not boundaried like that. How do you evolve people who are not good enough yet? Not by sending them away until they get better.”
Emergence & Emergency comprises work from a handful of artists who were not sent away—although they might have been had they been dealing with a more particular curator. The trade-off for Altschuler’s inclusive priorities is that this sprawling show is not consistently convincing, with certain works reading too bluntly, as though contributions to a catch-all student exhibition.
On the contrary, Weinberg’s Then & Now would have done well to include a wider, more demographically representative pool of artists with fewer contributions from each. If MoP4 is anything to go by, it looks as though political rejuvenation and hard curating don’t quite go hand in hand.
Mark Oppenheimer’s project, The Process of Unravelling and Reconstructing, comprises 18 portraits of people from the United States, Russia and Israel. Each was photographed clothed, in underwear and nude, with an object of personal significance. They all answered nine questions about themselves and their views on religion, politics and sexuality. The photographs have been bisected along the waist and combined to form 324 unique images. Oppenheimer says: “The viewer is invited to participate in the process of unravelling and reconstructing by piecing together the fragments of the subjects’ bodies and testimonies. In addition to exploring broad philosophical questions the project raises specific issues related to the nature of gender identity and interpersonal relationships.”
MoP4 runs at various venues throughout Cape Town. A detailed programme of events can be accessed at the South African Centre for Photography’s website: www.photocentre.org.za/festival.htm