Cape Town-based photographer Pieter Hugo’s work elicits extreme responses — from criticism for his exoticised representations of Africa to being lauded for reinvigorating photography with the unflinching imagery his large-format camera captures.
There are no ANC-prescribed notions of “prettiness” in his photographs, or any middle ground or easy responses to it.
Hugo’s latest work, the Pirelli-commissioned At Home series of nude portraits of South Africans at home — which features at the Jo’burg Art Fair — is all imperfect humanity, mottled skin, sock-elastic marks on ankles and grotesque testicles.
It is a visual and intellectual teabagging as one wonders why Carin Bester’s bed is sheetless (laundry day or a break between johns?), or what is behind the indolent, bored scepticism of Fernando Swartz’s gaze.
At Home pursues themes and a vocabulary characteristic of Hugo’s work: a questioning of the context and notions of “truth” in these portraits, the discomfort and uncertainty of not knowing but presuming, the relationship and rituals between photographer and subject. Hugo’s technical preciseness has the nudes in classic poses that are unsettlingly updated and reflect sensitivity to depth and composition. It also strips bare — literally and figuratively — ordinary South Africans, including the viewer, inducing an uncomfortable examination of self and society.
Corresponding by email from London, where he was short-listed for the Deutsche Börse photography award (which collagist John Stezaker won), Hugo said even though the series “is a typology — in this instance everyone is nude and at home — each image is still captioned with the individual’s name, location and date. It uncovers the singularity of the lived experience among the ready-made spectacle.”
He added that the Pirelli commission “facilitated” a project he had “wanted to do for a while”. The commission is a departure, in its conceptualisation, from Hugo’s apparent modus operandi, which is usually a response to external stimuli, including media and literature.
A cellphone image posted on the internet inspired The Hyena and Other Men, a series of portraits of itinerant Nigerian performers with their wild-dog co-stars. It, together with the Nollywood collection that profiled the world’s third-largest film industry in macabre, voodoo-style surreality, drew acclaim but also criticism for an allegedly exploitative representation of Africa.
Hugo has collected his work into six books, including Permanent Error, a terrifyingly post-apocalyptic examination of the graveyard where the world’s outdated computers go to die in Ghana and Pieter Hugo: This Must Be the Place, which accompanied a retrospective of 36-year-old Hugo’s work shown earlier this year at the Hague Museum of Photography.
Noah Rabinowitz, writing for the art website Guernica, noted that “although each of [Hugo’s] evocative series asks us to reassess the perceptions of our world, Hugo’s Hague collection questions photography itself: its limits as well as its increasingly complex methods of representation.”
It is a constant preoccupation for Hugo, who believes that “any practitioner should have a healthy distrust of the veracity of the medium they work in”.
Hugo has also, inadvertently, broken into the world of pop music. Beyoncé appropriated visuals from Hyena Men for her styling in the Run the World (Girls) music video and Nick Cave’s Grinderman project used some imagery from the Nollywood series for the Heathen Child video.
A Cave fan, Hugo expressed disappointment at not being involved in that process. Asked about which Cave song he would like to direct as a music video, the artist’s response is telling: the voyeuristic, unsettling Watching Alice from the album Tender Prey.
“It always reminded me of Balthus’s painting of the same title. Perhaps it directly references it. I would create new images and I would draw inspiration from Balthus’s fantastical lexicon,” said Hugo.
Pieter Hugo is this year’s Pirelli Special Project artist at the FNB Joburg Art Fair