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Capturing life’s elusive images

In 1999, Terry Kurgan’s Family Affairs show included revealing, intimate photographs of her two young children.

There were accusations of exploitation, of perverting innocence and young sexuality for the ends of art. Other juicy analyses attempted to give a bit of spice to that sometimes banal transaction that is art appreciation in South Africa.

One photograph from that show stood out. It was of Kurgan’s four-year-old daughter standing defiantly, a pale, white, gawky form in a dark pair of panties, her hand cupping her groin, her eyes staring directly into the camera. The expression on her face is hard to read, but there is bravery there, adventure and a certain fragile fear. And there’s a trust, an almost reluctant trust.

Kurgan’s latest show, Still, life, also features images of her daughter, but now she’s 17. Although it’s not necessary to know Kurgan’s earlier work in order to enjoy the current offering, the comparison is a remarkable vindication of the artist’s 1999 show and a refutation of her asinine critics.

Untitled (negative)

It’s more than that — it’s a wonderful way to understand how a comprehensively thought out and immaculately felt artistic vision can sustain and grow a body of work.

Transitive meaning
I say felt because, of course, this is about her daughter, so there’s a strong element of love in the images. But to concentrate on that would be to miss the complex, intriguing points that Still, life makes about the nature of perception, memory and transitive meaning, and how those relate to a life being lived.

The show’s title puns on at least two things — the futility of trying to fix life, which is basically what people criticising her 1999 show would have preferred to its dangerous presentation of nascent adultness, and on a celebratory engagement with life’s inevitable mutative drive, and how that mutation is marked in the nature of objects. In this case, the object is the subject, a daughter safely grown from a particular state of being into another.

But it’s also the material used, and photography itself.

Kurgan explains one of her processes of translating photographs into drawings, and she might as well be explaining a philosophy, or a mother/daughter relationship. “The first part of the process is the preparation of the paper, which I prime with rabbit-skin glue. I love how this surface resists my drawing materials — they slide off the page, leaving faint traces, enabling me to draw and remove repeatedly, building the drawing in many thin layers, and leaving the paper with a memory of an image built cumulatively.”

In 1999, Kurgan described Family Affairs to Rory Bester: “Family photographs represent the impossibility of the desire to hold, contain or capture some concrete reminder of present experience.” Still, life says something similar, but with an archaeological richness of production that makes you feel a little happier about what life is doing to you as you watch it pass.

Still, life
is on at AOP Gallery,
44 Stanley Avenue, Braamfontein Werf, until May 28

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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