Then and Now
Intersections Intersected by David Goldblatt - Open Eye Gallery 12th December - 28th February 2009.
Review by Simon Denison
Few photographers could get away with making a new book and show out of repositioning old work; but in David Goldblatt's case it makes sense. For over 40 years this South African photographer has documented the society and culture of his troubled country, which underwent such dramatic transformation in the 1990s. By pairing apartheid-era pictures with more recent work we are encouraged to reflect on the changes that have taken place.
The apartheid-era images in each pair are drawn from a range of early projects; of the later images, more than a quarter come from Goldblatt's 2005 book Intersections. The rest are new. The relatively small gallery space of the Open Eye in Liverpool could accommodate only ten out of the 43 pairs published in the new Intersections Intersected book and they serve only as a taster. This review will consider the project as a whole.
The fitting division of Goldblatt's photography into black-and-white for the apartheid era, and colour since the emergence of the 'Rainbow Nation' will escape no one. However, there is no hint of celebration in his use of colour. Only three pairs depict a clearcut apartheidpost-apartheid narrative: the Afrikaner Berg-en-Dal Monument is seen intact (1983) and now damaged (2005); the graves of the Craddock Four, murdered by security forces, are seen fresh-dug (1985) and now turned into a tourist site (2004); and the lavatories of the planned Frankfort Resettlement Camp, bizarrely spread across a hillside without other structures, are shown new-built (1983) and now abandoned (2006).
More often the pairs suggest parallels and continuities. Squatter camps then and now. Abandoned farmsteads then and now. A black mother and child sitting or lying out of doors without shelter in the blazing sun then and now. The contemporary pictures depict a land of widespread poverty and unemployment, of disappointment, and of aspirations among both white and black communities for a better life as yet unfulfilled.
And this, of course, is exactly what we should expect from David Goldblatt, a photographer whose novelist's sensibilities have always prevented him from seeing issues in terms of black and white, good and evil, and which distanced him from the so-called struggle photographers of the 1980s leading at one point to his blacklisting under the ANC's cultural boycott. Goldblatt has always noticed the sorrows, the aspirations, the foolishness, the humanity of all races in South Africa and it is this that makes his work which should always be read alongside his extended captions so subtle and satisfying.
Goldblatt excels at undermining our expectations. In one 1967 picture, an unsmiling portrait of Dr HF Vorwoerd, prime minister until 1966, hangs on the wall of a rural parlour. Wedged crookedly underneath is a cheap calendar provided by a local restaurant. Otherwise the walls are bare. In the foreground part of a table is covered in a torn lace (possibly plastic imitation) tablecloth, with two vases of flowers. In the contrasting 2006 picture, an election poster containing the smiling face of President Thabo Mbeki is seen in the sunlit, fertile open landscape. One might initially read this pairing as a contrast between the stifling, uneducated, prim conservatism of the rural Afrikaners and the limitless opportunities and optimism of the new era.
Yet Goldblatt's caption to the earlier image informs us that the Afrikaners of this remote valley seemed 'remarkably untainted' by the racist politics of the time 'There were some there to whom I spoke who did not know the word "Kaffir".' Meanwhile in the later picture, we notice that the gate next to Mbeki's poster is broken down, with a worn hand-painted property name-sign roughly attached, evidently the entrance to an impoverished farm. Mbeki, smiling in his expensive suit, emerges in this context as yet another smug politician remote from the troubles of the real world. Rain clouds gather over the darkening mountains in the background presciently, you might say, given Mbeki's forced resignation in 2008 under suspicion of corruption, leaving as his chief legacy a disastrous response to South Africa's AIDS epidemic, equivocation over tyranny in Zimbabwe and the escalation of violent crime at home.
Equally suggestive is the pairing of a graphic, harshly-lit 1982 photograph of the 12ft head of JG Strijdom, Prime Minister until 1958, in front of the imposing Volkskas Bank headquarters in Pretoria, with a 2005 picture of Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg. Strijdom, a fierce advocate of white supremacy and the creation of a republic divorced from Britain, is mischievously depicted via black-and-white tonality as dark-skinned against the head's white canopy. Goldblatt's caption tells us that in 2001, 40 years to the day after the republic was declared, the head fell through its supporting floor into an underground carpark and smashed. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, the city mayor, magnanimously described the head as a prominent landmark. 'It is always a sad day when an irreplaceable artwork is lost.'
The colour photograph of Nelson Mandela Square shares many formal elements with the 1982 picture, but in contrast to the stern grandiosity of the earlier work, it is softened by trees, outdoor restaurants and strolling groups of people. Again, however, all is not well with the modern world. A tower block under construction in the background displays a giant hoarding for Old Mutual Asset Managers announcing, in the crass language of contemporary self-promotion: 'Where There's Growth We're On It'. Moreover we learn that the square is protected by security officers, and for that reason alone is regarded as a safe place for rich teenagers to meet. Many live in walled estates in the northern suburbs.
This remarkable new organisation of Goldblatt's work reminds us that humanity is too complicated for history to be reduced to a straightforward linear narrative. All credit to the Open Eye for bringing this show to Britain but it deserves to be seen in its entirety at a major space such as the Barbican or the Hayward.