It’s not all black and white

Young men with dompas (an Identity document every African had to carry), White City, Jabavu, Soweto, 1972

Young men with dompas (an Identity document every African had to carry), White City, Jabavu, Soweto, 1972

Since 1994, the international art world has celebrated David Goldblatt’s professional endurance and longevity, and it has used the exhibition of his works to establish a commercial market for “African photography”.

Goldblatt seems like an obvious choice for a show of his works like the one that is on until May at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But it comes at a time when the documentary language that he was instrumental in popularising has ushered forward undesired and unexpected changes.

South Africans, like the French, may be unfamiliar with Goldblatt’s body of work but they are familiar with the unemployment, environmental degradation and inequality that Goldblatt documents.

Elements of irony and distance mark Goldblatt’s Pompidou exhibition. The show opened days after the resignation of president Jacob Zuma, and as international headlines reported with amazement and fear that a city like Cape Town could soon be without water.

Before the show, Goldblatt’s The Road to Nqondwana, Transkei (2007) and Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Semifinal of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition, Boksburg (1980) each fetched R300 000 as part of the Strauss & Co art auction held during the Cape Town Art Fair.

There is also a need to remember the context in which Africa is consumed by Western audiences. For this, we can look at the remarks of two of France’s presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron, regarding Africa’s “underdevelopment”. Then there is the French journalist who recently asked author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whether Nigeria had bookstores.

The gallery space is separated into eight parts and organised along the lines of the photographic series that Goldblatt initiated long before apartheid’s end in 1994. The sections include Particulars, On the Mines, Some Afrikaners, Jo’burg, Boksburg, The Transported of KwaNdebele, Kas Maine, and Structures.

A map of South Africa greets visitors entering the gallery, marking where Goldblatt has travelled and taken photographs. Rendered in grey tones, as if to remove them from the picture, are the other nations that make up Southern Africa. It is not an uncommon curatorial practice to silence the rich photographic histories and political affairs of South Africa’s neighbours when exhibiting South African photographers.

Whereas some of his contemporaries travelled across the region on news assignments, Goldblatt has remained firmly rooted in and focused on his practice inside South Africa, although some of his subjects may have been migrant labourers.

[On August 16 2012 South African police shot striking mineworkers of the Lonrho platinum mines, killing 34 and wounding 78 in seemingly wild shooting without good cause. The men were shot, some with their hands up in surrender, within a radius of about 300m of this koppie on which they met. Beyond is the Lonrho smelter, which stood idle during the strike. Marikana, North-West Province. May 11 2014]

The displayed photographs have been published in outlets such as the New York Times, but the exhibition elides how Goldblatt’s pictures determined the ways in which international audiences viewed apartheid.

As further evidence of a continuing prioritisation and misinterpretation of South(-ern) Africa’s photographic history, the French national collection includes 60 works by Goldblatt. Reflective of global market interests, the Centre Pompidou is expanding its photography collection to feature more South African photographers, such as Zanele Muholi, Pieter Hugo, Guy Tillim and Mikhael Subotzky.

Responding to the rationale behind the Goldblatt show instead of a broader scope, curator Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska said: “We [the Centre Pompidou] cannot work in all Africa. The continent is too big.”

The show gives the impression of being a retrospective, as Goldblatt has exhibited many of his photographic series in different configurations both in South Africa and abroad. Although the photographs are not organised chronologically, there is an interconnected quality to the displayed works.

There is a tendency to compare a photographer like Goldblatt to documentarians like Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Goldblatt’s work is better suited for comparisons with African-American photographers Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava.

Like Parks, Goldblatt worked for international news magazines and tried, not without backlash, to transform his commercial work into a platform to help audiences to understand apartheid.

There are curious temporal, compositional and content resonances between Parks’s series A Harlem Family, dating from the 1960s, and Goldblatt’s photographs of Afrikaners, many of whom he came to know from working at his father’s shop.

In contrast to DeCarava, who underexposed his images to capture the contours of black skin, Goldblatt appears more concerned with showing the shades through which people present themselves before his camera and in their daily landscapes. Neither DeCarava nor Goldblatt resorted to colour to answer the camera’s aesthetic dilemmas, and neither was comfortable with the label of “documentary photographer”.

Goldblatt’s peers have criticised him for not positioning himself and his work as a weapon of the anti-apartheid struggle. On the one hand, Goldblatt’s images framed how international audiences viewed apartheid. On the other, the documentary aesthetic Goldblatt cultivated was not always illuminating — there were blind spots.

There is a sequence of photographs in which Goldblatt repeatedly photographs the same scene to show how a black railway attendant denies another black person entry on to the railway platform because he uses the wrong entrance. There is also a picture of two black men, one of whom is posed with his identity card.

Layered on to the photograph is how the state viewed the subjects and Goldblatt’s view through the camera.

Goldblatt’s sitters never viewed his photographs but were instead left with the fleeting experience of being photographed by him. Exhibition visitors are not privy to this type of detail. Further to this point, the exhibited print of the men and the passbook is cropped in a way that removes the other three men who were present in the original frame.

The exhibition curator acquiesces to Goldblatt’s rhetorical efforts not to weaponise his photographs. As a result, the exhibition omits important, yet still unresolved, technical, political and compositional elements to documentary practices in South(-ern) Africa.

On the Mines and Jo’burg open with relatively recent colour photographs of the site of the Marikana massacre and the interior of Soweto’s Maponya Mall, respectively.

But Goldblatt’s use of colour, which he used more regularly after 1994 after having mainly rendered scenes of apartheid in a black-and-white register, remains largely unaddressed in the exhibition.

The images that close the Structures series, and in effect conclude the exhibition, are peculiar for their subject matter and for how they situate Goldblatt in the post-apartheid moment.

It is here where Goldblatt shows the 2015 removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

[The dethroning of Cecil John Rhodes, after the throwing of human faeces on the statue and the agreement of the university to the demands of the students for its removal. The University of Cape Town, April 9 2015]

Goldblatt stands behind student onlookers who raise their cellphones to photograph the scene. It would be these photographs, sent through instant messages and uploaded to Twitter and Facebook feeds, that would help spark, in the years to follow, other student protests across South Africa.

But in 2016, Goldblatt was inclined to photograph not the protests themselves but instead the burned picture frames from destroyed artworks or a sculpture by Willie Bester of Sarah Baartman that University of Cape Town students covered with cloth as part of their protests.

The photographer is dismissive of this student action and the university administrators’ responses to remove artworks deemed by students as racially insensitive.

Oddly, the show ends with a photograph of a rock sculpture designed as a part of community arts project initiated after white students at the University of the Free State urinated on the food of black workers. Goldblatt takes issue with how university students have found their voice through this defacement of images, calling such action anti-democratic.

He has since removed his archives from the University of Cape Town, and sought in effect to protect his works from facing such criticism and, perhaps, backlash.

Tellingly, there is no mention in the exhibition of one of Goldblatt’s most significant contributions to South Africa: his paving the way for the opening of the Market Photo Workshop and the training of a new generation of African photographers, which has included Muholi, Thabiso Sekgala, Nontsikelelo Veleko and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok.

When I stated how I saw similarities between Goldblatt’s Particulars and Muholi’s Faces and Phases, the exhibition curator was quick to remind me that Goldblatt never officially taught at the school.

Within this space of distancing Goldblatt, one sees how he identifies the legacies of apartheid, the bridges with the past that remain and the unfinished building projects. For a new generation of photographers, and also student activists, there is no documentary redux.

The Pompidou show is further evidence of the limitations of continuing to orient South(-ern) African photography and its practitioners within a narrow, highly contestable and exhausted documentary frame. A more comparative, regionally inclusive and nontraditional approach is necessary. 

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