Kin—the tenuous ties that bind us to and repel us from each other. Home is where belonging and alienation coexist. Does this belonging liberate or confine us? Does it tie us to the terrible weight of history or free us from it?
In 1976, Pieter Hugo was born in Cape Town. His passport confirms his nationality as South African but as a white man will he ever truly belong there? “Kin,” a collection of photographs spanning eight years, is a bold attempt at answering this question as well as interrogating the very notion of home.
Hugo, who stands both behind and in front of the lens, aims to reconcile hopes and doubts about his role in South Africa, to define and redefine his relationship with his native land. He does so by exploring and sharing that which attracts and endears him to South Africa—family, landscape and childhood—but puts these right alongside that which denies him a sense of comfort or optimism—that is, the cruel past and always visible injustices of his nation’s present.
The series is not a comment on, but a conversation with post-Apartheid South Africa: a country littered with unanswered questions, unspoken inequalities and unresolved dissonances. Hugo’s images feed on these incongruities and absurdities with subtlety (something that was notably absent in The Hyena & Other Men) resulting in an equally striking and all the more problematic portrait of his home.
Memory and the passage of time punctuate the works through visible scars on skin and land, decaying fruit, misty eyes, bent trees and buckling bodies; most frames are invaded literally and thematically by the shadows of the past, their subjects remain shackled by the stereotypes and prescribed roles of colonialism and Apartheid. Whether presented as youth, mother or elder, vagabond or nanny, Hugo challenges himself and us to view these figures as South Africans, first and foremost, looking beyond race or class even in the parodical images, such as the sexualized figures reclining on a bed, draped in traditional animal print clothing.
In keeping with the collection’s title, however, it is when exploring himself and his family critically that Hugo excels, combining a clarity of vision with an audacious sincerity. The unflinching gaze and stark nudity of the photographer and his pregnant wife Tamsyn clearly express the earnest task at hand: baring his kin (and white skin) to the world as an act of penance. Meanwhile, the presence of his newborn child, a future South African and innocent, betrays promise for the future. His son dribbles without prejudice, oblivious to his country’s chaotic history, and pure as a consequence of age and not colour. In utero, the child was shrouded in darkness—but out of the womb he is bathed in light. And perhaps, Hugo is daring to suggest, surrounded by hope as well.
Editors’ Note: The exhibition “Kin” showed at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in the spring of 2015.