Writing Art History Since 2002

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Warren Siebrits Johannesburg

Because he doesn’t have a large stable of contemporary artists to draw on, dealer Warren Siebrits often has to purchase works outright – primarily through auction – in order to put together a show. While some gallerists might consider this a liability, Siebrits has turned this ‘cramp’ into what has become a signature of his style: historically grounded, offbeat selections that manifest an unrelenting focus on a narrow theme, and a keen sensitivity to the place of works in a collection that can be more than just art. His latest showing of photography is in many ways an extension of this tactic of augmenting the commercial venture with strong curatorial investment.Photography – Manuel Alvarez Bravo to Pieter Hugo is an exhibition of 45 works by local and international photographers. As has become the custom at Siebrits, and as the exhibition title suggests, the works range between Bravo’s iconic 1934 photograph of a striking worker murdered during the Mexican revolution to Hugo’s 2004 series on post-genocide Rwanda. This exhibition is photography in all its genres: documentary, erotic, celebrity portrait, city and landscape, fantasy and surreal. It took Siebrits two-and-a-half years to assemble this exhibition, and each image has been assigned to a clearly articulated theme. Collectively these themes encompass photography’s very diversity, but in ways that also signal our ordinary encounter with the medium. ‘Portraits of Artists and Writers’ has the likes of George Hallett’s portraits of James Matthews and Gerard Sekoto combined with Harold Chapman’s photographs of the literary guests who passed through the Beat Hotel in Paris. ‘Performance’ is represented by a single mesmerising document by Vanessa Beecroft, and ‘Body’ by the aforementioned Bravo and one of André Kertesz’s bodily distortions. ‘Homelands and Rural South Africa’ brings together Jo Ractliffe and Paul Alberts in an awkward combination of what is more about not being urban than about the details of the theme itself. ‘Surreal and Bizarre’ reiterates the discomfort of Roger Ballen’s work, and ‘Social Turmoil’ repeats Bravo for the purposes of showing a Robert Hood and Jeff Mills vinyl album (that itself incorporates Bravo’s photograph into the cover artwork). ‘Johannesburg’ is the strongest of Siebrits’ thematic collations, and effectively illustrates how theme and images can work for each other. The choice of single images by Jürgen Schadeberg, David Goldblatt, Leon Krige and Bob Cnoops combine to reveal key historical moments in the investment in and abandonment of the city as ideological form. Hugo stands in for ‘Anatomy of Genocide’, while ‘Fashion’ is marked by a single portrait by Lolo Veleko. And finally, Tracey Moffat’s Scarred for Life series is a sublime example of the rich irony and satire that text can bring to the photographic image. In addition to organising the content, the thematic organization also serves to embrace the particular combination of local and international photographers in the exhibition, a feat that is both daunting and exciting. Without fear, Siebrits has not only challenged the awkward separation of these local and global histories, but has also shaken the parochialism with which the local tradition of documentary photography is sometimes considered. It is at once a clever act of equalization of the local and global, and an unintended indictment of the relative of weakness of, especially, Senzeni Marasela’s and Ruth Motau’s recent showings at the Goodman Gallery. Up until now Siebrits’ most successful collations for exhibition have focused on tighter combinations of works under a single historical or conceptual theme. The overt use of a single medium to hold a range of work together is always risky. What complicates Siebrits’ task further is the historical range of the photographs he’s collected for the show: 1934 to 2004, a timeline bound to show up glaring gaps that can in turn make some of the selections seem arbitrary. It requires a very careful choice of themes to get beyond the superficial connections offered by the medium alone. In the rush to so many themes, one can’t help but feel that Siebrits is making compensations for the focus on photography alone, and the historical gaps in his sample from the chosen medium.[

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