4.10 / Review

South Africa in Apartheid and After

By Larissa Archer February 26, 2013

Thumbnail: David Goldblatt. Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Miss Lovely Legs Competition, 1980; gelatin silver print; 11 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, South Africa; © David Goldblatt.
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“More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa.”—J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace.

South Africa in Apartheid and After, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a photographic investigation of the troubled country by three photographers: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, and Billy Monk. All native South Africans, each brings a very different perspective on his homeland.

The exhibition opens with photographs from Goldblatt’s 1982 project In Boksburg, a group of portraits of day-to-day life in a middle-class, predominantly white suburb of Boksburg, near Johannesburg, shot between 1970 and 1980. Goldblatt’s photographs are riveting as a catalogue of the accouterments of suburban living and the globalization of its milquetoast aesthetic: tract housing, OCD lawn care, concrete fences. Pervading his images is the sense of willful escapism that the suburbs can impart and are even designed to do. Perhaps this interpretation comes with an awareness of the ignominies of apartheid, particularly the disgrace of its final convulsions before its repeal in 1990. Considering that In Boksburg was shot during one of the most shameful episodes in human history, the series reads like a study of the deliberate obliviousness of its subjects.1

Many of Goldblatt’s images convey this contradiction between a place and the aspirations played out there. Black people rarely appear in the photos, and there is little evidence of black life or culture at all, except for a few shots of people looking dour at community meetings organized to address increasingly dreadful race relations. How strange the white semifinalists of the “Miss Lovely Legs” competition look, with their feathered hair and peekaboo nipples, teetering on a platform in front of an audience composed mostly of children and modestly dressed blacks. Other photographs require the viewer’s knowledge of their historical context to the land for the fullest reading. In one image, a smiling woman appears to be leading a small group of equally glee-filled children in song or to be telling a story. These are the Voortrekkers, a Boy Scout–like group set up by Afrikaner nationalists who found the actual Scouts to be too diverse and so established a new group to exclude not only black South Africans but also English-speaking whites and Jews.

Just as our American suburbs represent an escape from the “evils” of city life, Boksburg comes across as a sort of blinkered retreat from the ugly surrounding reality of the imperial cultures’ making. Goldblatt suggests that the transplanted cultures have brought with them a strict refusal to be affected by or to acknowledge their surroundings. Their homes could be in any suburb of the developed Western world; their hobbies and entertainment are familiarly middlebrow; their disregard for the humanitarian outrages their lives are built on is palpable.

Mandela had been in prison for 17 years when these people were photographed in their living rooms and workplaces, but if a visitor had mentioned that to them, they’d probably have looked at her like she’d peed on the carpet. Goldblatt focuses on the most banal aspects of imperialist life, which appears designed to discourage any reflection on the native culture it supplanted or the human cost therein, and leaves that side of the dialogue up to the informed viewer to fill in.

In contrast stands the work of Ernest Cole, a black South African, who photographed the living and working conditions of his people. When he published a book of his images (House of Bondage, 1967), both he and the book were banned from his country.2 One can see why. Cole documented the overflowing trains designated for black workers, the atrophic waiting areas where crowds sat for days before being funneled into the mines, the grim compounds where those miners lived, the tiny rooms furnished with newspapers and fruit crates where female domestic workers lived, and the callous harassment and violence dealt to black South Africans at the hands of unimpugnable whites. While Goldblatt’s images derive much of their power from the juxtaposition of the banality of what’s depicted with the horror that remains out of sight, Cole’s derive theirs from their intense visual beauty. Their deep black hues, shimmering highlights, and balletic suggestion of movement in the blur of bodies all convey the bleak truth of these peoples’ existence with a counterintuitive elegance. Where he depicts men dancing, children playing in a sprinkler, or even men enduring naked examination en masse in a doctor’s office, Cole captures a physical gracefulness absent from Goldblatt’s depictions of the colonial suburbs.

After processing they wait at railroad station for transportation to mine. Identity tag on wrist shows shipment of labor to which man is  assigned., 1960–1966; gelatin silver print; 8 11/16 x12 5/8 in.Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden; © The Ernest Cole Family Trust.

The club bouncer Billy Monk’s photographs from inside a late ’60's Capetown nightclub, The Catacombs, read as a sort of messy expurgation of the collective conscience of an extremely repressed, guilty people. Inelegantly drunk white and “coloured” (but not black) men and women clumsily straddle each others’ laps, spill drinks down their pants, tongue each other’s faces, flash workmanlike bras, and pass out in their chairs. Monk’s gritty subject matter and his candid shooting style (he was self-taught and used a Pentax with a 35mm lens) belie his eye for beautiful composition. The dangling body of a girl passed out in her chair nearly makes a diamond shape with the plane of the floor, a shape echoed in the embellishments on her sandals and on the sweater of a woman seated adjacent to her, calmly chatting with her friend. In another photo, the backs and limbs of a couple form a perfect triangle as they lean in to kiss while seated behind a long table, balanced at both ends with liquor bottles.

Billy Monk. The Catacombs, 1968, 1968, printed 2011; gelatin silver print; 11 x 16 in. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Estate of Billy Monk.

Bookending the exhibit is another series by Goldblatt, Ex-Offenders, from 2010. Men and women of different races are photographed at the sites of their alleged crimes or arrests, and their images are accompanied by descriptions, sometimes in their own words, of their crimes and lives thereafter. Each looks into the camera with a different expression in his or her eyes, and not one is simple or easy to interpret: some look hardened, others heartbreakingly sensitive and lost. Oddly, the ones convicted of the worst crimes have the least aggressive or sinister demeanors, and the ones who seem the most agitated or angry are those fighting for exoneration. Their stories convey that crime is a pointless, inevitable, and repetitive part of life in a country still crippled by its past.

 

South Africa in Apartheid and After is currently on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through March 5, 2013.

 

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NOTES:

1. For instance, as the civil rights movement was taking off in the United States, discriminatory policies were being written into law in South Africa, and activists and opponents were being imprisoned and assassinated by the government.

2. Cole was reclassified as “coloured” for his ability to speak Afrikaans, which constituted an upgrade in social status but did not free him from suspicion. He was surveilled and forced to photograph covertly.

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