Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson Cape Town

Guy Tillim’s exhibition Petros Village documents the quotidian life and people of a small rural community in central Malawi. In essence, the exhibition comprises two distinct bodies of work. Images captured outdoors document fleeting moments in the life of the settlement; these outdoor pictures are populated mostly by carefree children and cropped figures. By contrast, the photographs taken indoors seem more constructed, having the formal qualities of studio portraits. In these latter photographs, a succession of largely weary adults quietly considers the photographer. Light comes from a subdued and diffused exterior source, imparting the mood and patina of seventeenth century Dutch paintings. The subjects, who generally look directly at the viewer, are positioned against backgrounds of modulated ochre provided by the walls of huts. These works share some similarity with Tillim’s earlier Kunhinga Portraits (2004), particularly in their understated colour. Almost life size, the faces demand recognition. The dignified villagers are named and poignant details closely observed: a missing button, a threadbare shirt, an unravelling collar, some dirt on a lapel, the hand-stitched detail on school uniforms. The static, formal and centrally placed compositions of these portraits are offset by the outdoor series. Dynamic, diagonal lines create visual and kinetic tensions; the oblique lines that dominate many of the compositions are created by scratches in the dirt, pieces of twine and stick, tethered animals, leaning bicycles, agricultural implements and ditches.Paradoxically, in spite of the movement in these pictures, there is a stasis and quiet about the moments depicted in them. In Petros Village, Tillim suggests, the pace of life is slow and there is time for contemplation. The notion of a still point is traced through Tillim’s favoured motif of a deserted centre. In his outdoor photographs the central areas have been consistently vacated – the villagers seem to exist on the periphery, a foot or hand all that is left in the frame. In a beautifully observed photograph of girls at play, the focal point is empty: all that remains are the blocks of a children’s game etched into the hard mud, dividing up the earth and hinting at recent occupation. Here there is a diagonal tension created by two figures escaping the frame. One sees only traces of the girls: a single foot appears from beneath a dress on the right, while on the left, smaller feet and a delicate open hand flee the centre. The effect leaves our eyes searching, almost scouring, the empty space left behind.Some of these shots contain a whimsical lyricism, capturing extraordinarily beautiful moments. However, looking at the exhibition as a whole there is a uniformity about the pictures. While this makes for a very cohesive show, it soon becomes repetitive. Clearly this has something to do with the contained nature of the project: rather than presenting an essay, the exhibition has the quality of reportage. Tillim spent a relatively short time with the villagers and one cannot help but wonder if a sustained engagement would have provided more varied responses and a deeper awareness of the village and the pressures on the lives of its people.Given Tillim’s varied photographic practice and experimental working methods, uneven production is perhaps bound to result. Certainly this is the case with Petros Village, where one senses a return to a more conventional documentary without the level of subversive consciousness apparent in previous work within the genre. While Petros Village absorbs one momentarily, it lacks the intellectual density and the extraordinary poetic visual juxtapositions of his Leopold and Mobutu (2004) series. In that instance, Tillim’s work spoke about the complex relationship of the past and present, drawing intricate links between diverse parts of the globe and conflicting pasts, economies and histories. With Petros Village one is not made aware of the complex interwoven nature of history, politics and economics. Instead, Tillim indulges in wistfulness, nostalgia, even romanticism, an insight reinforced by a large wall-text, written by Tillim: “The hospitality I’ve received is so open-handed, so otherworldly, that it’s almost impossible to imagine in the place I come from. I try to place it, this generosity of spirit. I think of traditional rural hospitality, custom, things time-honoured and unmolested by city life. But the sense of it is elusive, muted by prejudice, obscured by ignorance.” In Petros Village we see life in a small settlement, but this is portrayed without the eloquence, intensity and imagination we have come to expect from Tillim.

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