Writing Art History Since 2002

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João Ferreira Gallery and Bell-Roberts Gallery | CAPE TOWN

Although there were times when it seemed as though Cape Town’s third Month of Photography festival would never get off the ground, it was with a huge sigh of relief that many of us greeted the growing evidence earlier this year that 2005 might deliver several thought-provoking projects as part of this initiative. In the event, the festival elicited exhibitions that were wonderfully diverse in presentation and intention.Given this diversity, it is all the more surprising that two of these exhibitions – Girl’s Night Out and Sweet Nothings – are in some respects quite similar. Both focus on the work of local white women photographers, and both seek to explore a range of interrelated issues that highlight the complex dynamic between the public and the personal, a preoccupation that has characterised the work of many women artists since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when feminist theorists first questioned the then prevalent tendency to dismiss the political import of private experience.Since these early days of feminist debate, it has become increasingly commonplace for women artists to address the politics of the personal through explorations of sexuality and gender identity, the voyeuristic potential of the (male) gaze – which is particularly obvious in photographic images – and the roles women have played in society (both past and present). In the process of exploring themes like these, many of these artists have developed previously unimaginable (re)configurations of the relationship between women and the world(s) they (re)negotiate on a daily basis.In these respects, both exhibitions hold few surprises. In fact, if anything, they confirm a trend in the politics of representation that is comfortably predictable, yet also entirely relevant to this day. In this world of lived experience, images of women grappling with the stereotypical roles they are repeatedly forced to adopt and fulfil compete with others in which, clearly, there is evidence that they have attained, and are attaining increasing freedom and power in both the private and the public domain.While concerns like these are evident in the works of a number of the photographs included in the two shows, significantly, hardly any of these women artists move beyond the immediate reality of their own (white) middle class experience. Indeed, although Dorothee Kreutzfeldt seeks to engage the often very harsh but always evocatively poignant realities of cotemporary life in the greater Johannesburg area, and Sue Williamson finds that it is only possible for a woman to enter the male world of Cairo nightlife if she is a complete outsider, by and large the photographs contained in these two exhibitions reflect preoccupations that are far removed from the lived realities of the majority of South African women today.In pointing to this fact, my intention is certainly not to devalue the aims of the photographers who participated in the two exhibitions, or to suggest that they should accept a greater political responsibility, or provide a politically more ‘correct’ take on the history of representation in South Africa. Rather, it is to highlight both the specificity of their concerns and the remarkable quality of nostalgia that seems to characterise the projects of many of the participants. It is an extraordinary fact that several of these artists provide glimpses into the now forgotten worlds once occupied by their parents and grandparents.Although never overt, the widespread interest in issues of gender and sexuality in both exhibitions highlights the increasingly problematic relationship between physical appearance and desirability in (Western) society. This anxious relationship is reflected, most obviously, but by no means only, in Claire Breukel’s photomontages of her mother and grandmother, as well as in the photographs of Tracy Lindner Gander. The latter photographer (together with Arnold Erasmus) presents a document of “the pregnant body during the last six weeks of pregnancy”. According to Linder Gander, this changing (pregnant) body “signifies shifts of identity from individual to that of mother and parent”. Breukel meanwhile reconfigures image of “once youthful figures” in a nostalgic search for a feminine identity that seeks to transcend prescriptive social norms but, sadly, seems incapable of escaping them. Similar issues are raised by Jillian Lochner’s manipulated images of a Barbie doll enacting scenes reminiscent of those performed by naked women in striptease clubs. But in this case the stark setting and harsh lighting suggest an inescapably depressing sense of loss and alienation.Although apparently essential, even eternal, these images of women struggling to come to terms with their own (mediated) sexuality, is belied by the voluptuous cheesecake soft-porn colour photographs that Jean Brudrit’s grandfather collected on a trip to Europe in the 1950s. These form part of the Sweet Nothings exhibition. It is an entirely apt tribute to the latter exhibition that one of these coyly available images of feminine sexuality – reminiscent of photographs documenting 1950s icons like Marilyn Monroe – was chosen for the cover of the modest catalogue produced to accompany that show. For, like the work of several other photographers included in both exhibitions, this found image draws attention to the fact that ideals of feminine beauty (and appropriate behaviour) are subject to constant renegotiation and redefinition.The interest in found objects, including found photographs, evident in the work of a number of the photographers from the two shows, provides what in some ways could be seen as a key to understanding the complex political role photography has come to play in contemporary society. Always alert to the medium’s voyeuristic potential, some of the photographers actively avoid the human subject; alternatively, they present people seen through the lens of other photographers or, as in the case of Katherine Bull’s work, through the grainy, smudged images produced on a mobile phone in the hazy artificial light cast by street and other lamps at night.Here, and elsewhere in these two exhibitions, the photographers’ self-conscious attention to how images can be, and are mediated encourages the viewer to take seriously even those images that seem otherwise to be quite light-hearted in intention.Sandra Klopper is Head of Department Fine Arts at Stellenbosch University

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