It is astonishing to think that, until the beginning of the 1990s, merely two
decades ago, modern and contemporary African photography was largely in
—Okwui Enwezor, writer, curator, educator
The exhibition (and great book) Apartheid & After reveals how powerfully the recent past can color our perception of the present — this theme runs through the work of all twelve participating photographers in this exhibition. Knowledge of the past brings the present into sharp focus, and vice versa. It's a tightrope act. Being a photographer in South Africa demands a sober, articulate, and skilled approach to the country's burden of memory, trauma, and resulting guilt, as well as to the mysterious coloring and extravagant beauty of Africa so eagerly exploited by today's tourist industry.
Apartheid & After, which is based on an idea by David Goldblatt, aims to display the quality, diversity and dynamism of contemporary South African photography. Today, twenty years after South Africa's first-ever free elections, Goldblatt is not alone in having a solid international reputation; he is joined by Guy Tillim, Jo Ractliffe, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi and Pieter Hugo, as well as by a new cohort of younger photographers such as Mikhael Subotzky, Daniel Naude, and Sabelo Mlangeni.
The exhibition opens with Goldblatt's own series, Particulars (1975), close-ups of a multicultural society at leisure in Johannesburg parks. These telling images of clothing and body language speak volumes about human relations at the time. The exhibition then fans out; almost every photographer is given their own gallery in the museum to explore their own theme. Jo Ractliffe, for instance, shows her recent series Borderlands (2013), sober black-and-white images of locations from which the SADF (South African Defense Force) operated during the war in Angola. Elsewhere there are forays deeper into the past; for example, Democratic Portraits by the late photographer Paul Alberts, whose portraits of so-called 'forgotten citizens' in the city hall of Majwemasweu, a township in Free State, were originally intended simply as ID photographs. Petros Village (2006), made in Malawi by Guy Tillim shows the photographer at his most lyrical and uncomplicated. Excerpts from Santu Mofokeng's Bloemhof (1988) show us what it was like to live as a tenant on a white man's farm, or in the isolation of a township. They stand in stark contrast to Hugh Exton's portraits, taken around 1910 in the small settlement of Pietersburg (now Polokwane). Exton took photographs of every person — rich and poor, black, white and coloured — who came to his studio. He portrayed everyone with the same care and respect, drawing no distinctions between them, which was quite exceptional in South Africa at that time. Exton's work, shown here for the first time ever outside the country, paints a proud picture of an early, thoroughly multicultural South African community.
Although the younger photographers' work takes a little more distance, perhaps, from the past than that of their older colleagues, the past remains stubbornly alive and cannot be wholly escaped. Whether in the mind of the viewer or through the unavoidable representation of historic facts, the history of South African photography informs even the most contemporarily rooted work. Good photographs are the telling details of a greater whole, and in this exhibition it is precisely the special filtering of detail — a myriad of deceptively simple things — which so clearly delineate the tell-tale flow of a nation's history.
— Huis Marseille
2014 Huis Marseille
Price: € 58.00
Texts by: Els Barents en Sean O'Toole