‘Yeoville was my visual therapy’ – Gideon Mendel

It was a bit like that oppressively hot January day 25 years ago in KwaMashu, north of Durban, when we were talking about Yeoville. Covering the undeclared civil war in Natal and KwaZulu, photographer Gideon Mendel and I were lying low behind a waist-high brick wall of some ruins in an open field. A few bored Inkatha members at the top of the hill in front of us were taking occasional pot shots at us – “bingg-fffeeoh!” the bullets cleaved through the humid air over our heads.

“Why don’t you join me for contemporary dance classes?” Mendel asked during a lull. “No, I play rugby in the townships and I really enjoy it,” I replied. “The dance classes are in the Yeoville rec hall,” he said. And then the clincher: “There are some nice, bohemian Yeoville women in the class …” My rugby career was over that instant and I joined him at the Yeoville Recreation Centre when we were back in Jo’burg the next week. It is 25 years later. This time there’s nobody shooting but we are talking about Yeoville again – over a coffee on the back stoep of Jo’burg’s lovely Gallery Momo. Mendel’s exhibition, Living in Yeoville Revisited, is gracing Momo’s walls.

“Last night I went to an Ethiopian wedding in the Yeoville rec hall,” he tells me. “It was very Pentecostal, no alcohol, 20 minutes of dancing, all very well behaved – not like we did in Yeoville.” Revisited is a selection of prints from a 1988 exhibition, Living in Yeoville, all photographs taken within a few kilometres of Mendel’s home in this unusual suburb. He was an agency photographer at the time of the apartheid state’s most brutal repression, documenting “a cycle of violence of funerals leading to more funerals”.

‘Yeoville was my visual therapy’

“In the Eighties I was putting myself close to very intense emotions – a lot of anger, a lot of sadness. I think I suffered from a lot of post-traumatic stress but it wasn’t something I even thought of and dealt with. I think Yeoville was my kind of visual response, my visual therapy.”

In 1986 a state of emergency was declared, making it near impossible to photograph political resistance. At the time Mendel got a grant from the Market Theatre, went freelance and zoomed in specifically on the Yeoville Recreation Centre, with its all-white tennis courts, recreation hall and swimming pool, as well as its all-race park area. “I was looking out for points of contact between black and white. I was looking at the bridge club at the recreation centre and I would wait for the guy with the tea tray to come into frame – and that was exactly the right moment.” 

It culminated in the 1988 exhibition. But then these photographs were left in a box at his London home – he left South Africa in the early 1990s to pursue an international career – and were only dusted off recently, some of which form part of the Rise and Fall of Apartheid exhibition, and also for Revisited. How does he feel about these pictures now? “Looking at the photographs you see a lot of things breaking down. There were lots of things happening that were heralding what was coming in the following years.” Realising to what extent “photographs that can be tools of visual advocacy”, the next phase of Mendel’s career was, as he says, “to help making antiretrovirals available to people in South Africa and Africa who needed them, and not just to wealthy people in the West”.

‘Drowning World’

His current project, Drowning World, is about flooding, trying to make some kind of statement about climate change. “I latched on to the construct of these floods, of doing portraits in floodwaters, which many  photojournalists really fucking hate.” Mendel has also been working in Yeoville on and off since 2010. So why wasn’t Revisited a then-and-now exhibition? He is bluntly honest: “I don’t think the new work is good enough, consolidated enough. I’m working there but I think there’s a lot more to do. I have taken some good pictures but I don’t think I have anything with remotely the same ­coherence.”

How much time would he need to spend there? “I think that is the issue. It takes a lot of time and that is the kind of pity … Part of the privilege of that [old] work is that I really had the time. I lived there, I was there.” He spent quite a bit of time in Yeoville this week. “It’s still exciting, the Yeoville Recreation Centre is still functioning, there are still dance classes in the hall.” Like many fifty something “toppies” we start chatting about our children. Mendel has two sons, Eli (16) and Joshua (14), who complain that “I don’t talk enough about my past. I’m not good at talking about it.”

He took his family to the Rise and Fall of Apartheid show when it was shown in Berlin and did a walkabout with the curator. “There was a moment that my sons were proud. ‘My over-the-hill dad has really done some important things in his life’.”

Living in Yeoville Revisited is on at the Gallery Momo until November 24

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