Through a racial lens, life is a beautiful mess

The first image you see as you enter Figures & ­Fictions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is a colour portrait of a white Afrikaner couple holding a black baby.

With affectless lighting the photographer, Pieter Hugo, elicits the couple’s damage: the man’s battered prosthetic leg, the woman’s ravaged face. But he has also found tenderness: they lock the camera with wide-eyed trust and we cannot help trusting them, too, with the care of the plump toddler in their grasp.

Fashion statement.(Lolo Veleko)

The photograph was taken in a small South African town in 2006 and for the exhibition’s co-curator, Tamar Garb, a white woman, it is deeply personal. She left the country in 1979, soon followed by her “coloured” partner, and eventually had a family that would have been impossible in South Africa.

Hugo’s photograph is significant for her, she says, because it allows for “a fiction of hope” to be built on the wreckage of the past.

“It allows me to indulge myself in the fantasy of a nonracial world, which, because of my own story, is vital to me; the ideal that we might see beyond the lens of race.”

Garb describes how, as an art student in Cape Town in 1976, she was watching an avant-garde performance by a classmate while the streets caught alight all around them. They could smell tear gas and then terrified black schoolchildren crashed in, seeking refuge from the police.

The juxtapositions were as unbearable as a life with her partner was impossible. She left South Africa soon after, seeking refuge in multicultural London and finding a new identity in the study of 19th-century French art (she heads the art history department at University College London).

South Africa in colour
Garb “lost” South Africa, she says, and the only way to manage this “was to repress its complexity and beauty”. The black-and-white images of the anti-apartheid struggle “replaced memory for me in my visual image bank — It was decades before I could see South Africa in colour.”

(Husain and Hassan Essop)

Through her own curatorial work she is rediscovering the land of her childhood: Figures & Fictions is a vivid subjective survey of what has become South Africa’s most dynamic art form. Its vibrancy in South Africa today can be attributed to its immediacy in a society so animated by debate, says Michael Stevenson, one of the country’s major art dealers. “It’s instantaneous, as if you are talking. There are not the layers of filtering present in other media.”

Long before photography played its “truth-telling” role in the anti-apartheid struggle, it was used ethnographically in South Africa to classify people according to racial type. Given this history, it is a particularly potent medium for young artists looking to define a post-apartheid identity.

The images on display at the V&A are in sharp contrast to what Garb terms the country’s “iconophobic” past in which images were ­censored and banned. In a catalogue ­interview photographer David Goldblatt explains: “We were denied the experience of knowing what Nelson Mandela looked like. We were denied the experience of each ­other’s lives.”

Still, “one developed ways around the system that were illicit but expressive — we all learned, as it were, to wiggle and squiggle”.

Catastrophic conflict
Goldblatt is the doyen of South African photography and Figures & Fictions begins with him, in more ways than one. In 1987 he donated 120 of his best prints to the V&A because he no longer believed South Africa could avoid “catastrophic conflict”, he wrote poignantly to the museum, and he worried that his images were vulnerable. Two decades later, Garb embarked on her own journey of reconnection and found the Goldblatt collection at the V&A.

She began a conversation with the museum’s senior photographic curator, Martin Barnes, the result of which is this exhibition.

So important is the 81-year-old Goldblatt’s legacy that Barnes has decided to show the photographer’s V&A collection alongside Figures & Fictions. Goldblatt features in the contemporary exhibition too and, as his devastating recent photograph of Zimbabwean refugees asleep in a Johannesburg church demonstrates, he does anything but “wiggle and squiggle”: he has been casting so clear an eye over the South African landscape for six decades that he has become the country’s visual ­conscience.

(Kudzanai Chiurai)

Intense literacy
Goldblatt has mentored several generations of South African photographers. He has also, Stevenson says, shifted the country’s photography into the realm of fine art because of the way he works with ideas. “A show like this simply could not have happened 10 years ago. There wasn’t an awareness in South Africa of photography as anything other than documentary within the tradition of struggle.”

Both Garb and Barnes, who jointly curated the exhibition, are struck by the intense literacy of South African photographers; the way they play with the traditions of portraiture, ethnography and documentary.

Barnes points to the work of Zwelethu Mthethwa, who has created photographic paintings “of the scale and compositional quality of Gainsborough” by posing young male participants in the arcane Shembe religious ritual against KwaZulu-Natal’s lush landscape. The boys wear a bizarre ensemble of kilts, frilly shirts and feathered headgear; by wilfully decontextualising them from the ritual, Mthethwa draws a delicate femininity out of them, enabling them to play with gender in a way that would be impossible in their everyday lives.

There is much of this kind of performance in Figures & Fictions: Sabelo Mlangeni finds edgy self-confidence in the black transvestites he photographs against their small-town environments; Zanele Muholi sets a same-sex couple, covered in kitsch Zulu knick-knackery, into a tourist postcard parody; Kudzanai Chiurai critiques neocolonial Africa with hip-hoppy posturing; Jodi Bieber asks women of all shapes to get their kits off and show “real beauty”.

Influence of photojournalism
Photojournalist Bieber recently won a major award for her Time cover of an Afghan woman whose nose had been cut off by the Taliban: there too, she confounded codes by urging her subject to explore her beauty for the camera.

(David Goldblatt)

Her presence in the exhibition points to the particular influence of photojournalism in South Africa and two other practitioners, Guy Tillim and Graeme Williams, have similarly moved beyond its strictures.

Tillim’s muddily lyrical portrait of a Malawian village is among the strongest work on show: it was rejected by the photographer’s client, an NGO, because it did not depict the requisite depredation. Williams, meanwhile, finds discomforting contrasts on the edge of town: after witnessing so much violence in South Africa, he simply could not “shoot straight” any more.

Santu Mofokeng is a former photo-journalist who, in the 1980s, found that he could no longer do struggle photography and put down his camera.

When he picked it up again, years later, it became a brush. He now paints both spiritual ecstasy and domestic life with eloquent shadow and perspective-shattering blur.

Participatory ethnography
Many of the younger photographers are engaged in what Garb calls “participatory ethnography”: they define themselves through the documentation of their own communities. Husain and Hassan Essop use their bodies to reenact the rituals of their Muslim community; Roelof van Wyk explores what it means to be a young Afrikaner by subjecting his friends to the ethno-photographic conventions of race classification; Muholi creates sombre, elegiac portraits of young black lesbians that are, she says, a form of “visual activism to ensure — black queer visibility”.

This is particularly urgent today, given the epidemic of “corrective rape” against the women she photo-graphs, despite South Africa’s official embracing of gay and lesbian equality.

Hybrid diversity
Garb describes such darkness as “the open wound” of a South Africa that has not lived up to the promises of the Mandela era. Still, the curator’s intention is to resist the pessimistic images that have dominated Western perceptions of the continent and her selection celebrates the hybrid diversity of the post-apartheid art scene.

This is evident in works ranging from Terry Kurgan’s thoughtful documentation of her work with black street photographers to Lolo Veleko’s own street photographs of hip “born-frees”, as South Africans born after apartheid are known.

But the wound is nonetheless evident, like the scab on the woman’s face in that Hugo portrait.

With his moving portraits of male intimacy in a single-sex migrant hostel, Sabelo Mlangeni might insist that he is documenting beauty in poverty rather than poverty itself, but the marginality of these men’s lives is ­unmistakeable.

Similarly, there are bruises of darkness in Mofokeng’s work on Aids, neon sparks of fear in the reflective vests that Mikhael Subotsky’s security guards wear, and deep scratches of conflict across Jo Ractliffe’s images of Angola, which etch into the landscape so much of the pain of war that Southern Africans still carry.

History in the prints

The images of all these artists are unforgettable because of the way they work history — narrative and emotion — so finely into their prints.

Ractliffe is one of three white artists on show, with Tillim and Hugo, who take their cameras to other parts of Africa.

Hugo’s images of West Africa, from garbage scavengers to dog fighters, have drawn criticism for their construction of a somewhat monstrous, often masked hyper-masculine African other.

They are indeed worlds away from the photographer’s empathetic portrayals of his fellow South Africans and, in the exhibition’s catalogue, Garb expresses concern about the way some of the works she has chosen run the age-old risk of “spectacularising” Africa.

Still, for the curator there is redemption in the artists’ self-consciousness: perhaps because of the country’s history there is nowhere in the world that seems so preoccupied with the relationship between photographer and subject.

A beautiful mess
In the exhibition’s most self-consciously symbolic work Berni Searle — who would have been classified “coloured” in apartheid South Africa — enacts a parable of creolisation with her own body, cladding herself in black and white crepe paper that she then drenches with water. Rather than making colour, she makes a beautiful mess.

Is there any hope, then, for Garb’s fantasy that South Africans will be able to look beyond the racial lens?

“No,” she says, citing the difficulty of finding images of mixed groups. But she believes that her exhibition tracks another breathtaking process in South African society today: “the dissolution of the oppositions between masculine and feminine, and the new possibilities that can be imagined there. So much fantastic work is coming out about gender and sexuality.” She pauses. “It’s still as if you can’t do that with race.” —

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