Kitty's easy lensplay lightens a heavy load
There is a scene in Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera’s fictional masterwork The House of Hunger in which he describes Solomon, the township photographer, “obliterating” the “squalor of reality in an explosion of flashbulbs”. The line replays itself when I look at Steven Dubin’s exhibition, Developing Characters, showing at Nirox Projects in Johannesburg.
The images, curated by Dubin, a professor of arts administration at New York’s Columbia University, are drawn from an archive of studio photographs produced by Kitty’s Studio in the years 1972 to 1984. The Pietermaritzburg studio, which belonged to Singarum Jeevaruthnam Moodley, aka Kitty (1922 to 1987), operated out of the commercial heart of the then bustling and racially segregated city.
The 80 black-and-white photographs are intriguing.
Displayed at a size that requires you to step closer as if viewing a family album, they are, on the surface, much alike, mostly conventionally posed studio shots.
But on closer examination there are details that arouse curiosity about the lives of the sitters, the circumstances that made them want to be photographed and present themselves in particular guises.
There is an extraordinary story of how Dubin came to the photos. A museum curator who specialises in documenting traditional Zulu attire bought a box of negatives from the family after Kitty’s death. After paying R250 for them, she had buyer’s remorse when she discovered that many images were of people in modern dress and not in keeping with the museum’s mission.
Dubin also points out: “In 1987, museums worldwide were generally not taking photography seriously”, so she feared she would jeopardise her job by keeping them. She discarded hundreds of them. The box of 1 409 negatives found its way into the hands of an art student, and travelled to Johannesburg, where it lay in a garage for more than a decade. Eventually, it was shown to Dubin, a regular visitor to South Africa.
His curiosity piqued from the first look, Dubin returned to New York, where his research assistant spent eight months cleaning and scanning the images. They were in no particular order. Each photo became a mystery to be unraveled. Most extraordinarily, one of the final negatives scanned showed the name of Kitty’s Studio. Dubin returned to South Africa months later determined to make sense of the puzzle.
Here, he traced Kitty’s six surviving children and set about researching the clothing styles and particular poses exhibited in the photos. He says it was easy to trace the family as Kitty’s Studio was a well-known institution. Today the site of a hair salon, Kitty’s was then a hangout for people to read newspapers, gossip, argue about soccer and talk anti-apartheid politics.
Formerly a machinist in a Pietermaritzburg shoe factory, Kitty’s political views brought him into conflict with his boss. Facing unemployment, he turned his hobby into a profession.
Dubin says: “The family lived in a tiny little two-bedroom council house. In the corner, he had a little darkroom. With the studio, he used his photographs to support his family.”
The studio operated from 6am to 6pm. Kitty would return at 2am each morning to develop the photos from the day before. “The only time he took time off was occasionally to go to a soccer match or a political rally and then his children would take over. He bought all the photography magazines, used a Hasselblad camera. This was really a professional identity for him.”
There is an extraordinary lightness to a lot of the photographs. Says Dubin: “Kitty must have had a way with his subjects to create that ease at a time when Kwazulu-Natal was racked with violence and factionalism.”
The exhibition’s title was derived from Dubin’s interview with Farook Khan, a retired journalist and activist who knew Kitty.
“He told me Kitty was developing characters. He provided people with this incredible multiracial environment in which they could experiment and aspire to things they weren’t at the time,” Dubin says.
“All we have in terms of photographic memory of that time is what appeared in the press – much more officially sanctioned. Here, you get an idea of what has been private until now, people’s day-to-day lives, as well as who they would like to have been.”
This use of private space for the public record is tricky to negotiate, and something that Dubin is deeply cognisant of. The disclaimer accompanying the exhibition states: “The display of these photographs is not intended to embarrass, humiliate or jeopardise the character or reputation of their subjects.”
The subjects include young men showing off urban style with panache, older men in full traditional Zulu attire. There are family photos and photos of couples that portray a husband and wife, or parents with their daughters, the men dressed as a city man, the women in traditional beaded garb, the unmarried women bare-breasted, as would have been the convention.
Modernity and tradition appear to sit side by side with ease. This is unusual, says Dubin, who points out that, at that time, the rest of Africa was experiencing its postcolonial moment and looking to the future with photographers such as Mali’s Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé showing people on motor scooters, posing with Western music records.
That said, the photos raise interesting questions about gender. One of the emblematic images is of a kid, relaxing back into a chair, dark sunglasses giving him a movie-star appearance. Another is of two dandyish young men, their clothing suggestive of a night out on the town, when in fact the photo depicts their return from Xhosa initiation rites.
“The men are strutting their stuff, while the women are not as comfortable,” says Dubin.
Two of the most intriguing images show a woman dressed in trousers and the accessories associated with a Zulu man, then in a skirt. This would have been highly transgressive.
One photo of a woman shows her from the back, dressed in Zulu beadwork that would have been uncharacteristic for its excess. Two others in the sequence show a front view.
Dubin says the images “would be something a woman would send to her boyfriend, probably working in Johannesburg on the mines, to indicate her readiness for marriage. People I have spoken to say the back view was actually more important for an African man.” Child-bearing hips were highly desirable.
The studio didn’t have a dress-up box, a familiar feature of studio photography in other parts of Africa and in the United States. The people in traditional clothing brought it in through the busy taxi rank outside in their brown suitcases. Says Dubin: “One of Kitty’s daughters said something very beautiful. She said people would come to the studio carrying their culture.”
In the gallery, one of few pops of colour is a replica of the studio’s most ubiquitous prop, a basket of artificial blooms, assembled by Dubin. The vivid shades hint at the full colour that lies beneath these monochrome prints, much as the details fastidiously collected by the researcher gesture at the lives and stories of the sitters.
In the catalogue, Dubin uses a quote from John Berger in About Looking that says a lot about what drove him to delve more deeply into that box of negatives: “Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned.”
The exhibition is on until August 22 at Nirox Projects (niroxarts.com), 264 Fox Street, Arts on Main, Maboneng, Johannesburg. The University of Johannesburg’s Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design hosts a panel discussion on the exhibition at the gallery on August 8 at 6.30pm