Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson Cape Town

Pieter Hugo’s recent solo show at Michael Stevenson had moments of extraordinary power. The two series of portraits hung in the first section of the gallery suggested, however, that Hugo’s obsession with groups or subcultures threatened to slip over into the mundane. His shots of Orlando Pirates soccer fans and white traditional healers in trance seem to entertain the notion that to be part of a subculture is enough of a reason to be photographed. And in the rarefied space of the gallery these images, lacking any context, relying solely on the interest generated by the faces and the costumes of the subjects, and gesturing to a weird mixture of the oddball and the serious, feel somehow lacking in substance. The soccer fans are infantilised and the traditional healers, though purportedly in the grip of enormous emotion, seem characters in a rather bad piece of theatrics.They give way, fortunately, to some of Hugo’s most interesting portraits to date. The second space in the gallery, though a little crowded with images, is dominated by two startling photographs facing each other across the gallery floor. One is a full-length shot of a Dambe boxer from Kano, Nigeria, standing feet firmly planted, right hand swathed in the traditional cloth-and-cord glove of the Dambe fighter, nose showing all the signs of the pugilist’s trade. The portrait is a deeply moving meditation on machismo, resignation, and vulnerability, the boxer seeming to draw together all of these qualities in the steady gaze he directs at the camera.On the opposite wall is Hugo’s portrait of a taxi washer from his series shot in and around Durban in 2005. The extraordinary beauty of the subject imbues Hugo’s study of young men living, undoubtedly, below the breadline, with poignancy. This is a theme running through several of Hugo’s series – the honey collectors in Ghana, the hyena men of Abuja, Nigeria, for example – that allude to the complex web of social, economic, and political relations in which Hugo’s subjects participate. He offers, however, nothing more than the leafy camouflage worn by the honey collectors, the cloths, buckets, and naked torsos of the taxi washers, and the startling accoutrements of the hyena men as commentary upon the expediency of survival and the pure necessity of work.Several of the portraits in Hugo’s series on barristers in Ghana and judges in Botswana stand out. Here Hugo explores the compositional and philosophical implications of the distance between camera and subject. He shoots some portraits from the waist up and others as tightly cropped head-and-shoulders busts. In the former, the judges are all photographed in the same large, square chair, gazing authoritatively into the camera. Their hands, grasping the arms of the chair or holding white gloves, offer a sharp contrast to the authoritative gaze, so that each portrait presents an exquisite balance between dignity and vulnerability, between the office of judge and the individuality of the person occupying that office. The more tightly composed busts, on the other hand, affirm the impersonal authority of the judiciary: the faces, framed by long grey wigs above immaculate white ruffs, become metaphors of office, recalling portraits of kings and prime ministers, and serving as reminders of the legal system that is the colonial “parent” to Botswana’s own.The 2006 shot of a young farm boy from Louis Trichardt is Hugo at his best. The pensive gaze and pubescent awkwardness of the boy unman, for a moment, Hugo’s natural photographic aggression so that the image turns into a gentle face-off between photographer and subject.Hugo is something of a retro ethnographer whose work recalls August Sander and others of the early twentieth century Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) school. His apparently dispassionate approach to human faces (most evident in his albino series, for example) is undercut, however, by a sly romanticism and a genuine interest in the way in which social taboos, political relations, and the bare facts of life are transmogrified in the play of emotions on the human face and body.

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