Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery, Standard Bank Gallery, Market Photo Workshop Johannesburg & MuseumAfrica

Omar Badsha, in the seminal collection, South Africa: The Cordoned Heart (1986), was unequivocal when he wrote that the “two photographers who have most influenced the post-1976 generation are Peter Magubane and David Goldblatt”. A few years later, Paul Weinberg, in his equally influential essay on South African photography, Apartheid: A Vigilant Witness, suggested that Magubane and Goldblatt, along with Jürgen Schadeberg “remain the pioneers of the early period whose influence on the photographic movement has been profound”.These statements were made close to 20 years ago, in a period of successive states of emergency, and when photography played a vital role in witnessing the atrocities of apartheid. Fast forward to the spring of this year, and photography appears to have come a long way, most notably in the most forward-thinking documentary work having moved home from the domain of editorial to the clear parameters of the gallery space.What better way to assess this journey and the current places of these three pioneers than in the fortuitous instance of Johannesburg hosting concurrent exhibitions by Goldblatt (David Goldblatt Fifty-One Years at Johannesburg Art Gallery), Magubane (Madiba: Man of Destiny at Standard Bank Gallery), and Schadeberg (Voices from the Land at Newtown’s MuseumAfrica). In the context of a discussion of the three men who have formed the backbone of South African documentary and reportage photography since the middle of the twentieth century, it seems opportune to introduce a younger photographer into the mix. Not only because Vathiswa Ruselo represents a new generation of black women photographers who is adding an important new voice to South African documentary photography, but also because her work seeks to archive the very period when Goldblatt, Magubane and Schadeberg where cutting their teeth in careers with cameras.Between the four exhibitions there are close to 1,000 photographs on display, making any nose poke into analysis of individual works seems futile at best. Instead I’d like to contextualize these exhibitions within the changing landscape of straight (including documentary and reportage) photography in South Africa.Goldblatt’s is the only conventional retrospective in the group. A project of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and curated by Corinne Diserens and Okwui Enwezor, it forms part of what is hopefully a changing trend that is seeing more and more internationally produced exhibitions about South Africa and its visual culture actually making their way to our shores. Along with displays of Goldblatt’s many books and reproductions of his photographs in different magazines and journals (most notably his portraits for Leadership magazine), the bulk of the exhibition is constituted by more than 250 photographs taken between 1948 and 2002. The works are organised largely along the lines of their collation in Goldblatt’s various book works, with only “Transkei” not being derived from any major published works.While this retrospective strategy is conservative in its representation of Goldblatt’s oeuvre, what it does — quite correctly and importantly — is underline the critical role that publications have played in the evolution of his career. I can’t think of any other South African photographer who has so consistently published his photographs in book form. And in the way that Goldblatt has so carefully conceived of his publications, they have become collector’s pieces in their own rights. In 2000 I bought South Afrikaners Photographed for R1,200 from a dealer who recently sold another copy of the same book for R3,500.And not only has Goldblatt published his books over all these years, but he has also been taking photographs of the highest order. His photographs are technically superb but without fuss, sparse in their cut to a subject’s core, and joined in a material focus that sweetly cuts to the core of the production of social space in South Africa. His photographic style is clearly mirrored in the exhibition template: simple frames, muted walls and clear thematic divisions. Within this frame, the photographs alone are left to resonate their own power.Peter Magubane’s dramatic energy comes up much closer to his subjects than the paired down distance of Goldblatt’s documentaries. His various books, many records of Soweto in the 1970s, have an energy that suggests a style derived from years of experience in media such as the Rand Daily Mail and Time magazine, laying bare uncomfortable apartheid realities. His up close and personal way landed the photographer in detention for more than 500 days.Where the Goldblatt exhibition, in the form of the retrospective, is a biographical account of the output of a photographer, Magubane’s exhibition is a version of the biography of Nelson Mandela. Where Diserens and Enwezor’s conservative choice foregrounds the role of bookmaking in the evolution of Goldblatt’s working life, no such curatorial strategy is evident in Magubane’s exhibition, Madiba: Man of Destiny, which rambles in and out of the life of Nelson Mandela with no clear biographical direction.The organization of the photographs neither interrogates the notion of destiny nor acknowledges the politics of the iconisation of this figurehead of freedom. And where is Magubane’s authorial voice in this thinly wedded collation of life? The viewer is left with no sense of the context of Magubane’s record. When were these photographs taken? How were they circulated? There is no doubt that Magubane had the advantage of very private access to Mandela’s life after February 1990. But was he on assignment for a newspaper or magazine when he shot these photographs? Or was it a personal journey to articulate the history of a life? Without this framework, some of the selections and organization of material seems obscure, taking focus too far away from the intricacies of Mandela’s life.For the duration of Mandela’s 27-year incarceration he remained largely un-photographed. In an exhibition whose content is fundamentally photographic, this periodic lack of images presents an interesting curatorial dilemma that could have seen the evolution of a number of innovative biographical strategies, most notably around the void and silence. That speculative illustrations, based on photographs from the 1960s, had to be used to image Mandela when word of his release hit the media, is utterly lost on this exhibition. Instead the account of these interceding years becomes a knee jerk effort to fill the silence and, as a consequence, too much a sideshow retrospective of Magubane’s output.Against these shortcomings, one of the substantive strength of the exhibition is the manner in which the selected photographs foreground Mandela as a man on the move. The exhibition is peppered with images that create an overwhelming sense of a man whose long walk to freedom was only the first a number of walks, which have seen him tread and re-tread the globe since 1990. It is not the image of a static leader, rigid behind a podium or still like a mannequin flanked by other powerful mannequins (although there are these kinds of images in the exhibition), but rather one in which Magubane, true to style, imbues Mandela with the energy of human movement that crosses the real and imagined boundaries of political leadership. It is this abiding image of the man that has kept and turned the media’s attention on his current inability to walk with ease and comfort.I went to see Jürgen Schadeberg’s Voices from the Land with a strong image in my mind: the character of Schadeberg photographing farm conditions in the 1950s in Zola Maseko’s feature film, Drum (2004), as well as examples of the resulting photographs that were also shown in the film. It was a time when taking such images presented the photographer with real risk, when the images themselves were part of a dynamic and fast evolving tradition of straight photography, and when the publication of such images constituted a dramatic exposé.Back again on the subject after all these years, in an exhibition whose list of funders include Atlantic Philanthropies, Schadeberg is still working with journalists (he accompanied Henry Nxumalo for the original Drum story) to layer photographs about farm life with additional meaning. But this new account of rural life is now a thoroughly negotiated affair, replete with permissions for production and issue laden with bureaucracy (land claims, service delivery, etc.). What makes Schadeberg’s task especially difficult is that he is working with a thoroughly trodden topic in an exhibition space poorly suited to the display of photography.The introduction to the exhibition begins with a reference to the work of the Farm Security Administration, which funded and coordinated the photographic record of the plight of rural poor in the US in the 1930s. It is still a critical moment in the history of documentary photography, and one whose content remains utterly gripping even today. My local barometer for this particularly difficult kind of content is Paul Weinberg’s excellent book of photographs, Back to the Land (1996). His integration of a highly emotive subject with the particular emotional energy of his photographic mode makes for a document whose layers are always engaging.Applied to the subject at hand Schadeberg’s style seems tired at best. This record of the harsh realities of farm workers and the conditions of their rural life, that include fear, hunger, pain, despair, lack of job security, seeks to bring about positive change but achieves little more than a double act of subjugation. There are no shades of grey, as claimed in the exhibition introduction, but rather a predominance of stiff black-and-white portraits that only regiment the subject’s poverty. And the accompanying journalists’ texts, while fluid in style, are not properly integrated into the network of meaning generated by this photographic exhibition.Schadeberg’s is the one exhibition that draws on extensive development sector funding. It is worth noting this point because it speaks to the often-contested debate about the relationship between culture and developmental agendas. While donors such as Atlantic Philanthropies should be commended for engaging with one or anther cultural practice, it is difficult to laud their choice of example. Documentary has moved on in much more dramatic and imaginative ways, both in term of the production of images, and their display and circulation amongst different publics and interest groups, especially for Schadeberg’s work to be the precedent for the intersection of culture and development.Sponsorship, this time from AngloGold Ashanti, also gave Vathiswa Ruselo a break in the form of the Edward Ruiz Mentorship. Named in memory of Edward Ruiz, a US-born photojournalist who lived and died in South Africa, the year long mentorship affords promising South African photographers the opportunity to produce a substantial documentary essay under the guidance of an established photographer. Jo Ractliffe mentored Ruselo, who by day works as an apprentice for Schadeberg. Shown at the Market Photo Workshop’s new exhibition space on President Street, Ruselo’s body of work albums the lives of boxers who not only fought from the 1950s to 70s, but who are also still involved in one or another aspect of the sport.Ruselo grew up in the Eastern Cape, with boxing all around her. Like everywhere else in the world, it was perceived to be a ticket out of poverty. With this perspective in mind,Forgotten Heroes takes Ruselo into the lives of boxers who, often against seemingly insurmountable odds, have risen to the top of their game: Enoch “School Boy” Nhlapo, the only local boxer to have been unbeaten after 40 fights; Anthony “Blue Jaguar” Morodi, who held SA Junior Lightweight, Lightweight, Bantamweight titles; and Gerrie Debruyn, bronze medallist at the 1958 Empire Games.While the title of the exhibition and her “golden era” frame allude to a softly sentimental gaze, her composition of these lives in photographs couldn’t be more thoughtful and incisive. Yes, they are reminders of past and fading achievements, but Ruselo has managed to imbue her proud portraits, whether engaged or disengaged from the camera, with a clear sense of the ways in which they remember themselves. And it is the archive that variously layers and envelops the subjects, a wall of medals and ribbons, photographs of the boxers as young fighters, clumsily held winner’s belts, a large background poster of Muhammad Ali, pre-fight gowns and embellished blazers, that allow us to read subjectivity into these portraits.It is Ruselo’s sensitivity to this archive that allows her to overcome one of the vexing questions in the politics of photographing sporting heroes: fading and lost identities. It is the memorabilia that allows the boxers to hold on to their glories and it is Ruselo’s placement of this special category of memorabilia within the frame that allows the viewer to so seamlessly negotiate the depth of these portraits.Rory Bester is a doctoral fellow in the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project at Wits University, Johannesburg[

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