After Social Documentary
Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography — Victoria and Albert Museum 12th April – 17th July 2011 / Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, David Goldblatt — Victoria and Albert Museum 8th April – 31st July 2011
Review by David Evans
Figures & Fictions presents seventeen contemporary photographers from South Africa. The oldest is David Goldblatt, born in 1930, and the twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop, born in 1985, are the youngest. Overall, the emphasis is on photographers who have reached adulthood in a post-apartheid country (that is, after 1993) and on work produced in the last decade or so. All contributors to the exhibition are based in South Africa, though it is worth noting that the catalogue also discusses work by famous ex-pats like Candice Breitz (Berlin) and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (London). And the guest curator is another famous ex-pat: Tamar Garb, Professor of Art History at University College, London.
Running concurrently in another part of the museum is a related exhibition called Lifetimes: Under Apartheid – around seventy black and white documentary photographs by David Goldblatt that he donated to the V&A in the 1987 at a time when the imminent demise of the apartheid state was by no means obvious. The title of the exhibition is a re-working of a famous book called Lifetimes Under Apartheid (New York, 1986) that combines Golblatt’s photographs with writing by Nadine Gordimer. This volume, and other books by Goldblatt like On The Mines (Cape Town, 1973), also with writing by Gordimer, Some Afrikaners Photographed (Johannesburg, 1975), or In Boksburg (Cape Town, 1982) are an integral element of this discreet and powerful exhibition, reminding us that the book form was one of the best ways of circulating photographs within, and beyond, the apartheid regime. (Figures & Fictions includes very recent work by Goldblatt, like the photographs from 2010 that depict exoffenders revisiting the scenes of their crimes.)
A state based on racial discrimination and segregation was officially launched in 1948 and came to an end in the early 1990s, with the first multi-racial elections taking place in 1994. And as V&A photography curator Martin Barnes notes in a useful foreword to the catalogue for Figures & Fictions, the postapartheid period has coincided with the firm establishment of photography as a respected current of contemporary art within a global frame. Consequently, photographers based in South Africa are now able to exhibit their work at home and abroad in a complex of biennials, fairs, galleries and museums. In short, Lifetimes: Under Apartheid and Figures & Fictions not only juxtapose two different eras, but also two different cultural contexts for the production, dissemination and reception of photography.
In addition, it is now relatively straightforward for photographers based in South Africa to engage with new developments elsewhere, and a superficial response to Figures & Fictions might note the affinities between some of the projects and well known precedents from Western Europe or North America. For example, the photographs by Sabelo Mlangeni dealing with gay life in rural areas, or Zanele Muholi’s photographs of black lesbians, could fit comfortably into any of the numerous celebrations of queer identity that have been produced in the UK, USA and elsewhere since the 1970s; Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder (2003-2007) by Nontsikelelo ‘Lolo’ Veleko champions the range and creativity of urban street style that recalls the early work of Wolfgang Tillmans; portraits of young Afrikaners by Roelof Petrus van Wyk have hints of Thomas Ruff; and in general there is a preference for well framed, large-scale, colour photography that has become an obvious way of establishing credibility as serious art throughout the world in the last couple of decades. Yet far more is going on here, as Tamar Garb explains in a lengthy and astute catalogue essay.
She is a specialist in 19th Century French painting, especially portraiture, but a keen interest in contemporary art from her home country was signaled by a show she organized in 2008 at The Haunch of Venison Gallery, London, called Land Marks/Home Lands; Contemporary Art from South Africa. With the V&A exhibition the various strands are combined, as she concentrates on the photographic portrait, expansively defined. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition and catalogue are marked by her long-term preoccupations with gender, sexuality and race, tackled from a feminist perspective.
Her substantial catalogue essay triangulates three types of photography from South Africa that foreground the human figure: anthropological typologies, portraiture and social documentary. The categories are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, contemporary art photography from South Africa is regularly informed by all of them. Moreover, each category can be honoured, refuted or mimicked, she argues. Pursuing this line of thought, what is exciting about the portraits of van Wyk, say, is not the nod in the direction of the Düsseldorf School, but the fact that he draws on the typological conventions that underpinned the 19th Century ethnographic photography of Gustav Fritsch to investigate his own ‘tribe’ of white Afrikaners. Moreover, he is exploring a way of representing his ‘tribe’ that is markedly different from the social documentary projects on the Afrikaners by Goldblatt.
Her catalogue essay is also fascinating for its rich detail, such as an engrossing paragraph on the South African reception of New York MoMA’s travelling exhibition The Family of Man that was shown in Johannesburg in 1958. Famously critiqued by Roland Barthes for its vapid humanism, the show was hailed by South African liberals as an antidote to the basic premises of the apartheid state, although conservative voices were also able to discuss it without acknowledging its subversive potential within the context of fifties South Africa. And another suggestive section discusses the current attempts to go beyond a certain style of ‘engaged’ documentary that is now strongly associated with past struggles against apartheid. These two examples are symptomatic of a publication and two exhibitions that offer continuous surprises as local and international factors interact in complex ways.