Writing Art History Since 2002

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Pollsmoor prison | Cape Town

Die Vier Hoeke, Mikhael Subotzky’s photographic exhibition of on-going work documenting life in South African prisons, offers a discreetly intimate look at a community relegated to the shadows of mainstream society. The photographer’s stated agenda in this exhibition is to raise public consciousness around the broad and complex issues of criminal justice reform, including over-crowded prison conditions. The theme easily lends itself to either sentimentalism or sensationalism: Subotzky, rather, makes his points with cool rationalism and an effective collaboration of photographic skill and aesthetic finesse that makes for intelligently persuasive social commentary.Exhibiting Die Vier Hoeke as a one-time event in conjunction with a Freedom Day (April 27) commemoration at Pollsmoor Prison is Subotzky’s first challenge to viewer sensibilities. Die Vier Hoeke, which translates from Afrikaans as ‘the four corners’, is inmate vernacular for prison. The venue functions as a set-up for the work. Experiencing the sights, sounds and protocols of Pollsmoor provides a tangible context to the images that might otherwise be difficult to conceptualise. Yet, the work resonates equally in the comfort of more congenial spaces. Two deftly crafted 360-degree panoramic pieces, both untitled, succinctly frame the rich narrative of Die Vier Hoeke. The first, a view of an administrative processing area in Pollsmoor, is a terse introduction to the discourse. Far left in the frame a dense crowd of men dressed in street clothes stand idly in a long row of cells. Staring forward with expressions ranging from confusion to resignation, they have presumably been recently arrested. In the centre of the frame a uniformed prison official in a barred office area attends to the paperwork of a detainee standing on the other side. Far right in the frame a guard stands sentry at a passageway.Three figures, staggered in triangular procession, walk through the centre of the frame toward the passageway. Distortions inherent in the panoramic perspective split the scene into three phantasmagoric spheres: the holding cell, the administrative office, the passageway to prison. The piece is an artfully composed expression of the physical and psychological transformation from private citizen, to state prisoner.The second piece that cuts to the quick of Subotzky’s theme is a view of a communal cell. Occupied by 54 men, designed to accommodate less than half as many, the photograph works on all of the senses. Men in various positions of repose lounge on bunk beds positioned against walls strewn with bright orange prison overalls and scraps of laundry hanging over ropes. The floor is paved in mattresses. A group of men sit playing cards, others lie dozing or smoking, some stare numbly at the photographer, others stare numbly into space. Florescent light reflected off the yellow walls of the cell creates an oddly cheery backdrop to this bizarre group portrait. Far right in the foreground one man stands apart from the group. With his hands placed firmly on his hips and stoic eyes fixed squarely on the camera, he exudes the confidence of a leader. Perhaps not coincidentally, this man is represented twice.In the time it took Subotzky to shoot the last of the 18 frames that comprise this digitally composed print, the inmate had moved from his position on a bunk to assume a more prominent place in the grouping that one can only assume reflects his actual status. In a scene infused with a heavy aura of sweat, smoke and super-charged testosterone, photographic technique is used to great effect in reinforcing the other-worldliness of this environment. The piece is visually arresting, viscerally jarring and technically well-executed.Subotzky’s work in Die Vier Hoeke implies as much as it actually reveals about this shadowy corner of society, compelling both an intellectual and an emotional response. By giving a face to the faceless, the photographer challenges viewer empathy with the complex human dynamic of the prison community and offers elegant expression of the crisis within a system that fails both society and the individual. Joyce Monson is a freelance writer based in Cape TownJoyce Monson is a freelance writer based in Cape Town

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