Transitions was organised by The Bath Festivals Trust and was shown at the Ormeau Baths Gallery during August and September, 1995.
Review by Linda and John McClelland
Santu Mofokeng and Lien Botha both contributed their photographic works to this touring exhibition of contemporary art from the Republic of South Africa. Its aim is to highlight the work of selected artists at a pivotal movement in its history when there is a very real need to rebuild international relations with the post-apartheid state. Their works are primarily intended to enhance the dialogue between the Black, Boer and English-speaking communities and to bring that dialogue to a wider audience. Bearing this in mind their setting within the gallery space at the Ormeau Baths is unfortunate as they oppose each other across a stretch of barren wooden flooring, Black South Africa on one wall and Boer South Africa on the other.
Lien Botha deals in constructed still life images which explore the history of the Boers in South Africa interwoven with her own personal ancestry. Memorabilia in the form of cuttings from the artist's personal and social history are combined with organic garden forms and political/historical images crafted as a series of eight tableaux. The pieces are small in relation to the work of Mofokeng but are packed full and demand a close examination. Reminiscent of photomontage there is a combination of second hand imagery on torn paper combined with actual objects such as leaves and flowers. The layers are dense and varied and the eye becomes confused as to what is real and what is not. There is a general flattening of the picture plane with a confusing mixture of colour and black and white. The work is firmly set in the studio with no apparent interaction between the photographer and those who appear in the photographs.
These are cleverly put together images (perhaps too cleverly) and are an honest attempt to address the less than distinguished history of white South Africa. However, they lack emotion and spontaneity as the careful calculation of each piece destroys immediacy and leaves the feeling that one is viewing history once removed. I found them rather dead - a dusty reflection on a dubious past, more an end-piece than a new beginning.
In Bath, where the exhibition has already been shown, Santu Mofokeng's slide images were projected onto the wall of the gallery. In the Ormeau Baths they are confined to a small tape/slide screen in the corner of the room that reduces their impact. This demands more of an audience who are unlikely to see the presentation through - especially as no seats were initially provided by the gallery management for the 15 minute viewing. The slides are accompanied by African music which keys the work and gives it a sense of atmosphere and space (at least when the gallery staff condescend to turn it on).
There is a loss of image quality due to some of the slides' enlargement but these works are charged with the language of photography - light creates an almost tangible atmosphere, differential focusing directs attention and blurred movement suggests a climate of transience and change. Images of the everyday lives of South African people are interspersed with historical family photographs as public life mixes with the private. All are firmly fixed in the Black African experience of the townships. The works are haunted by the all-pervading influences of Western society; alcohol, Western dress, transistor radios, pin-ups of sanitised white beauties and advertising hoardings screaming the virtues of soap powder in the midst of wasteland. To a Western eye these intrusions lend the images a sense of loss and sadness (not to mention guilt). Yet they also speak of community, cohesion and a vibrancy of life.
Although it would be possible to argue that Mofokeng's work is simply in a documentary style with a flavouring of social anthropology, it is also visually and emotionally strong, both in style and subject matter. The artist has formed relationships with the people he has photographed and the immediate contact is direct and honest, with no sense of manipulation or an encroaching personal agenda. As Mofokeng himself says, too many artists have sought to portray black people as dangerous, unstable or primitive or else conversely imbue them with a simple dignity. Both approaches, one 'radical', one conservative, distort the reality of township life. There is a danger in this, of course, in that each person approaches a photograph with his or her owns frames of reference, historical background, social position, political views, experiences of life and emotions - all of which affect the decoding process.
The image which stayed with me showed four young men in casual clothes; two standing facing forward, one leaning passively against a wall, one looking alarmed at the camera. The two caught moving across the picture plane are blurred, almost not there, disappearing. Is this symbolic? People disappear before our eyes, snatched away while others stand and stare - or is it the new South Africa, moving and changing so fast that the eye can hardly perceive it? If so, some seem left behind and some scared by the pace of change. I was reminded of Anthony Haughey's Home showing the lives of people in the Ballymunn estate in Dublin. This is a black and white South African version which is possibly open to the same criticism of being voyeuristic. And yet Mofokeng celebrates the communality of life and its experience rather than highlighting the divisions some would prefer to concentrate on.
It is a pity then that the Ormeau Baths Gallery made no attempt to set the work in context through critical debate nor offered any kind of accompanying educational service. For example, a symposium accompanied the exhibition in Bath. The Gallery must engage more with the needs of its audience if it wishes to achieve parity with similar venues in the U. K. and Ireland. It is an exciting space which requires imaginative handling and a degree of enthusiasm greater than that displayed in the presentation of this exhibition.