Pieter Hugo

MICHAEL STEVENSON | CAPE TOWN

Salon De Coiffure, barber shop signs defaced by Hutu militias, La Mignore, Kigali, Rwanda, II, 2004, digital archival print, 93 x 112cmAn albino boy leans against a birdbath, at night, both the colour of alabaster in the light of the flash. He is naked, except for a pair of shorts, as is the stone cherub holding up the bath. The details that emerge — white roses, a white fence, the three white stripes against his black shorts, his white, white chest against a darkening sky — are captivating. Hugo believes that “people project their desires, fears, fantasies and repulsions upon people with albinism,” and the same can be said of art. But it’s rare that a photograph goes beyond the purely documentary, beyond visual effect for it’s own sake, and allows the viewer enough room to project their own desires and fears onto the work.Hugo’s portrait of Tem Vleksi – part of his extraordinary three-part series on albinism, the Rwandan genocide and tuberculosis patients – achieves this. That Vleksi is an orphan in Cape Town gives the revealing of his body its poignant bravura. And yet it’s playful; the boy’s fountain-like posture, hip jutting, arm cocked like an amphora handle, mimics a key garden feature of South Africa’s Tuscan-inspired housing complexes.Albinos must be tired of being stared at. But Hugo’s subjects do not look uncomfortable or unwilling. That Hugo established trust with so many people, of all classes and backgrounds, speaks volumes about his working methods. He asked people with albinism to sit for him wherever he travelled, whether on assignment for Colors magazine, in places like Birmingham and the remote Ilha dos Lencois, Brazil, to the Klein Karoo and Johannesburg. Seen together, the portraits – white face, neutral background – have a repetitive pop-art feel, like Warhol’s prints of Monroe.And yet the individuality of each subject is reflected. Often it’s in the quality of their eyes. “Despite a general Hollywood – and indeed pop-cultural – pathology that favours showing albinos as having red eyes,” writes Sean O’Toole in the accompanying text, “[t]he truth is that the colour range of the albino eye varies from a dull grey to blue to brown.” One of the most beautiful portraits is of Steven Mohapi, with his large, pellucid, green-gold eyes.In Rwanda, Hugo offers a “forensic view of some of the sites of mass execution and graves that stand as lingering memorials to the many thousand people slaughtered”. However worthy the Rwanda genocide is as a subject, most of Hugo’s photographs here struggle to depart from what newspaper photographers have already done, and it’s the subject matter – the lime-coated corpses, the washing line heavy with the clothes of the dead, the latrine where victims were buried – that engages the viewer rather than his technique.That said, Hugo consistently shows his eye for the telling detail, and finally pushes into fresh, original territory in his images of barbershop signs defaced by Hutu militias. The shop signs are of beautifully coiffed women but the eyes have been chipped out. In the Great Lakes region, whose intricate hairstyles have slowly filtered down to South Africa, going to the hairdresser is a statement of self-pride. Hugo’s photos of the defaced signs capture, in a poignant and less obvious way, what the genocide meant.At first glance, Hugo’s portraits of tuberculosis patients while on assignment for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Malawi have a documentary feel, but they are no less fascinating than the albino series. Hugo’s choice of subject is prescient: I feel that the hospitals of Southern Africa, repositories of hope and despair in the era of HIV/Aids, will become sites where our society will need artists to fully explore the human condition — for many southern Africans, the hospital bed will soon become the limit of their lives.Compositionally, the image of Medisone Baja (19), who looks like a child wrapped up to his chin in white sheets, is the most engaging. Least successful — it’s the only image where the subject is not looking back at the viewer — is a portrait of Winston Masambo (30), a man clearly in the end stage of Aids, eyes rolling back in his head, lesions marking his face. The three remaining portraits depict a touching relationship between a TB patient and their guardian. In these three photographs, the patients are all bare-chested.The most disturbing is of Tabalire Chitope (30). Her breasts are flaccid, the sheets barely come up to her hips, but it’s her eyes – a wide ring of white around her pupils – that immediately draw the viewer’s attention. In her gaze is all the fear of dying; in her nakedness, her vulnerability. And yet her gaze is steady, looking straight at you. The WHO is strict about patients’ right to privacy so we can assume that the subject gave permission for this photograph. We, her viewers, through the agency of Hugo’s camera, are richer, even more humane, for that permission.
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