Writing Art History Since 2002

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Durban Art Gallery & KZNSA Gallery

Both Paul Weinberg and Omar Badsha came out of a late-Apartheid tradition of social documentary photography. Although Badsha’s retrospective, entitled 30 Years: A World of Small Things and hosted by the Durban Art Gallery, omits his early prize-winning non-photographic art-works, it still provides a detailed overview of all his major photographic work, from his first major book, Letter to Farzana (banned in 1978) through his investigation of forced removals in Inanda in the 1980s, titled Imijondolo¸ to his latest project, Imperial Ghetto. These major collections are hung between and beside less well-known series: of trade-union meetings and marches in the 1980s, of the Badsha Pir religious ceremony in Durban, and of Badsha’s travels in Denmark, Ethiopia and India throughout the 1990s.Throughout his long career, Badsha has maintained a remarkably constant vision. Each of these photographs combines a neutral surface gloss with a deep and even focus. Each element caught in the camera’s lens is as crisp and clear as every other element; this crispness erodes the usual sharp distinction of visual interest between foreground and background. His photographs function to draw you into their material worlds – and the further in you go, the larger these images seem.A posed portrait titled Induna Nkonyone, Amouti District illustrates this. At first glance, this photograph appears to simply depict the Induna as a man displaying his authority to the camera. He sits front-and-centre, his gaze turned to one side, away from the camera. His hair is crisp, short and white. His flesh swells beneath his white vest and shorts. He sprawls like an odalisque on his metal-framed school-chair. A bleached and even light saturates the photograph, lending an evenness to the image that slowly brings the fleshy display of the Induna’s authority into its context. For behind him is a school-building, half-built and half-decayed, every crack and every stain on its wall as crisp as the bulging creases in his spotless white vest.It is difficult to guess at what Badsha intends us to conclude from this photograph. His judgement seems reserved. It is possible to say only one thing with certainty: whatever conclusions we may draw, Badsha wants us to look at every element of the photograph. The Induna in this photograph cannot be seen in isolation from his material world; his display of authority is inseparable from the institutional decay in which it takes place.The same process is at work in one Badsha’s earliest photographs, a family portrait of his daughter, Farzana, with her great-grandmother. The affection which suffuses this image is not simply the product of the familial relation indicated in the photograph’s title, and neither does it simply rise from the contrast between the older woman’s shrivelled skin and the baby’s tiny face. Instead, it arises from every detail: from the mess of tea cups and saucers to the crumpled blankets strewn across the bed. Each crisply-rendered detail emphasises the affection that warms this apparently-stark black and white photograph.The meditative calm of these images combines with the evenness of Badsha’s photographic eye to create small spaces of stillness and quiet, even in his photographs of union meetings and marches a calm prevails. Badsha’s are photographs that stir both thought and emotion; but they are not photographs which attempt to reproduce in a visual form the fervour of their subject matter.By contrast, Weinberg’s show presents photographs as dramatic as the experiences they depict. Titled The Moving Spirit, it collects Weinberg’s black and white photographs of spiritual experience and religious ritual in South Africa. For several years, he has travelled the country recording the ways in which people worship – whether in trance-states, or dancing, or with baptismal ceremonies.These photographs are all light and motion, either the motion of light on water or the white flaring of flames in the night. Looking at them after seeing Badsha’s quietly contemplative images it is clear that Weinberg is as accomplished at using the camera’s focus as a way of ordering the viewer’s experience. But in these photographs Weinberg, unlike Badsha, uses his camera’s focus to unsettle the stability of the recorded image.In a photograph of a group trance during a ceremony “for #Khomeni Bushmen back in their ancestral land” a brilliant white fire dominates the image. The participants’ dancing bodies are defined by the play of firelight across their sweating skins and it is only the traces of their movement as captured in that light that allows their figures to be distinguished from the deep black night behind and around them. The same emphasis on motion as a sign of transcendence can be seen in Weinberg’s photograph of a sangoma “in a state of trance, during a graduating ceremony”. Her face is blurred with motion, and only the whites of her eyes and the brilliant drops of sweat on her skin are crisp in this print. The image – used to advertise the show – is one of a holy grotesquery.But while these photographs a stunning in their beauty, the most memorable image in this exhibition is the quietest. Captioned “Young Zulu maidens during the reed dance”, it shows a group of young girls pressed so close together. Photographed from above, their long pale reeds stretch up through the image’s frame. A girl’s face stares up into the air and into the photographer’s lens, her clear-eyed gaze following the trajectory of the reeds. This photograph is a stinging rebuke to the too-common and too-lazy images of the Reed Dance as an exoticised and essentialed tourist fantasy of Zulu-ness – the humanity of these girls is too immediate and too intimate to permit such fantasising.It is here that Weinberg’s work coincides with Badsha’s – both draw their inspiration from a documentary tradition to arrive at a body of work that combines an ethic of honest observation with an artistic sensibility to produce perfectly balanced photographs. Their photographs ask us to do more than simply observe, they challenge us to understand their subjects and the material and spiritual worlds in which they live.

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