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This photographic exhibition is curated from Oliewenhuis Art Museum and ArtbankSA’s collections.  The exhibition features historical and contemporary moments as seen through the lens of some of South Africa’s most esteemed photographers. The artworks for this exhibition were selected specifically to commemorate a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history: the first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Since 1994 all South Africans have benefitted from the freedom of existence, to receive education and to experiment with social equality: luxuries that were not accessible to all South Africans under the brutal ruling of apartheid. This year we celebrate 28 years of freedom in a post-apartheid, democratised South Africa. We have become liberated.

The aim of this captivating exhibition is to celebrate, and to some extent interrogate, different ideologies relating to the notion of being free. The exhibition embraces different subcategories to underscore the overarching theme of freedom but also to look through a broader lens, where the photography might show some contested concepts that might visually seem opposing to the concept of being free.

Photography is an important element in this exhibition. The medium in itself becomes a concept. To take a picture, the person holding the camera aims to freeze a moment in time. Photography was a popular medium and widely used by documentary photographers working in monochrome during the nineteenth century in South Africa.  As Patricia Heyes stated in her article, Power, Secrecy, Proximity: A Short History of South African Photography, “Photography should not be studied in isolation. In Southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, photography is related to the history of exploration, colonization, knowledge production and captivity” (2007:  141).

Reading the latter and placing it in context, it is of the essence to mention the powerful work of Sam Nzima, Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Jürgen Schadeburg – photographers who documented South Africa through a time of exile, violence and separation. Critical historical moments were captured by these courageous photographers.

Since the 1950s, Drum magazine was a creative space for many young black writers and photographers, such as Ernest Cole, Peter Magubane and Bob Gosani, to name a few. Ernest Cole was one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, as indicated on their website, South African History Online (2021).

At Drum magazine, and under the guidance of German-born photographer Jürgen Schadeburg, who immigrated to South Africa in the 1950s, many young black photographers were taught to master the skill of photography.   Cole, Schadeburg and Magubane were amongst those who worked together to expose the world of stark realities as the apartheid regime progressed (Schadeberg: 1994: 10-20).

Figure 1: Jürgen Schadeburg. Johannesburg 1955. Photograph courtesy of the Jürgen Schadeburg estate. (Schadeburg 1994: 67)

Figure 1 is a photograph taken by Jürgen Schadeburg  while working for Drum magazine. During an interview with Schadeburg, after he received the Leica Hall of fame award in 2018, he told the story behind this particular photograph: “We were doing a story for Drum about the pass laws. I was working together with the two young black men hiding behind the wall. They were hiding because they did not have their pass books with them, which would result in their being arrested. As the policemen came closer to us, I went on my left knee, taking a picture of the patrolling policemen. It is evident from their satisfied smiles that they felt important and proud being photographed. I thus took their gaze away from the two men hiding and they did not notice them.’’ (Interview with Jürgen Schadeburg: Leica Camera 2019, February 21).

When reflecting on the history of South Africa it is important to commemorate not only the political freedom fighters but also the protesters and the fearless photographers who captured those moments for us to. For this reason it was a natural choice to include only photographs in this exhibition.

Freedom from…Freedom to…Freedom to be… is thus an amalgamation of photographic moments of younger contemporary photographers that boldly expresses their freedom: the freedom of choice, the freedom of gender equality and the freedom to be, the freedom to question society. The mid-career artists found in the exhibition are looking at the subject matter, or the captured historical moment with the aim to dissect painful moments for reflection and discussion through photography.

The following are the leading categories that are visually dominant in this exhibition:

  • Photography as a method to communicate freedom;
  • Photography as an influential technique to narrate reminders of a convoluted past, or historical moments with the aim of artistically re-enacting the subject matter in a post-apartheid and contemporary context;
  • Photography as a powerful tool for documentation, and
  • Photography as performance.

Photography as a method to communicate freedom:

Figure 2: Nomusa Musah Mtshali, 2020, Unondevana 1, art print gliclee on Epson enhanced matt ArtbankSA 2020 collection. Photo Credit: Jano Myburgh.

Contemporary photographer Nomusa Musah Mtshali unapologetically addresses gender non – binary experiences through art making. The photographer is a queer artist of colour. Mtshali raises questions about circumscribed concepts of “cultural and religious gender expectations and race – with the understanding that no-one fits these boxes perfectly”.

Mtshali further states that “my artworks represent my way of processing the world in which I find myself. I aim that the gaze of my artworks to be one of understanding and empathy, mostly that gender is an expression that can be expressed by each individual” (https://nomusamusamtshali.pb.online).

When one observes the portrait, unexpected elements are found – such as male facial hair combined with pink nail polish and pink headband. The subject is dressed in a pretty, feminine blouse that might astonish or confuse the viewer even further. At this point the viewer might question the gender of the particular person, perhaps judging the choices this individual made by choosing this specific attire and accessories. Either the viewer has the desire to categorise the individual and desperately wants to know the ‘story’ behind the photograph; or accepts the interesting, eccentric way this person chooses to wear’ their uniqueness with confidence.

Ironically the portrayed subject is calm and adapts an interesting pose of freedom that empowers the individual in the photograph. The power is conveyed in the upwards stare of the person, unaware or even uninterested in the gaze of the viewer. The subject is enshrined with an angelic peacefulness, and is free to express their preferred identity.

Photography: an influential technique to narrate reminders of convoluted historical moments with the aim of artistically re-enacting the subject matter in a post-apartheid and contemporary context: 

Freedom from…Freedom to…Freedom to be… incorporates unsettling images of war and diverse approaches artists used to document or recast particular historical moments such as war and its consequences.  Cedric Nunn, Christo Doherty and Paul Emmanuel deal with this subject matter in varied ways in the exhibition. For this subcategory I choose to focus on the work of Christo Doherty’s two photographs, Cassinga Kassinga I and II.

Figure 3: Doherty, C. 2011. Cassinga Kassinga I. Archival print on rag paper. Photo credits: Oliewenhuis Art Museum archive

Figure 4: Doherty, C. 2011. Cassinga Kassinga I. Archival print on rag paper. Photo credits: Oliewenhuis Art Museum archive

Cassinga Kassinga I and II are artworks based on the tragic events of 4 May 1978: the Cassinga Raid or Massacre. This was a controversial South African airborne attack on the military camp at the town of Cassinga, a mining town in Angola. The artist, Doherty, spent 13 months of his SADF service as an 18- turning 19-year-old straight from school in this combat and narrates his experiences of this historical moment through this series of works.

Weronika Muller states in her article The effect of the 1978 Cassinga Raid on the Border War (2019), “On 4 May 1978, the South African Defence Force (SADF) carried out their first paratroop operation against the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) inside Angola. This raid, at the mining town of Cassinga (alternatively spelt Kassinga), 250 km across the Angolan border, was one of the most daring and controversial events of the twenty-eight-year long conflict that in South Africa is known as the ‘Border War’ (’Grensoorlog’ in Afrikaans)” (2019: 26).

Muller further mentions that “Cassinga soon became a favourable discussion in the international arena and for the last three decades, the raid has continued to raise emotional, albeit contrasting responses from black Namibians and white South Africans. To Namibians, Cassinga signifies the dreadful price they had to pay to gain their independence; to many white South Africans, Cassinga is synonymous with a brilliant military manoeuvre; a day to celebrate a victory and to remember all fallen paratroopers” (2019: 26).

I am particularly interested in the questions ‘what is real’ or ‘who was right’ after an event, like war, as Muller underscored in her article. It is clear in the case of the Cassinga attack that two different narratives are believed; those of the black Namibians and white South Africans are in opposition. This is particularly applicable to personal memory or collective memory attached to an event and how it will influence the perspective of the photographer, the narrator of text or the viewer of an artwork. And within this particular case, also the memory of the artist.

Susan Crane addresses collective memory and places by stating “sites most associated with historical consciousness have been studied as ‘lieux de mémoire’ [1] but the process of making historical consciousness exceeds any single combination of place or time, and occurs as ‘locally’ as a person’s private thoughts.” She specifically addresses this “phenomenon” by aptly stating that “historical consciousness continually exceeds those documentable moments which result in texts and narratives, because it refrains from incorporation in institutions, texts and practices” (Crane 1997:  45-46).

Doherty reinterprets Cassinga Kassinga by enlarging tiny army toys in a specially decorated space in nature. Sticks and leaves become monumental in these photographs once being enlarged with the little army men and army weaponry. The tragic event is theatrically re-cast through the eyes and memory of Doherty. Toys are evocative of childhood; children naively play with toy soldiers and toy weapons without a real idea   of the cost of war.  Recreating scenes of atrocities with toys is a poignant reminder of lost humanity and innocence. Bronwyn Law-Viljoen states that “at least 300 of the dead at Cassinga were women and children. SWAPO and Angolan sources indicated that these were refugees, whereas South African combatants recounted that SWAPO was using civilians as human shields during the encounter” (2011: Mail and Guardian)

Cassinga Kassinga I and II is an ideal example of photography used to narrate reminders of a convoluted past or historical moments with the aim of artistically re-enacting the subject matter in a post-apartheid and contemporary context in conjunction with contemporary photographers Lebo Thoka, with her work House of Gold (2019), and Antonia Steyn Eugene Terre ‘Blanche (2007).

I am interested in how daringly these two female photographers question contemporary societal injustices, especially with Lebo Thoka’s work and Antonia Steyn’s reminder of a very powerful right-wing figure prominent during the height of apartheid. However, Steyn reconfigure the status of Eugene Terre’Blanch in a snap shot.

Figure 5: Antonia Steyn. 2007. Eugene Terre ‘Blanche. Print on Lightjet, using Fuji Crystal Archive Matt on aluminium. Photo Credit: Antonia Steyn.

Steyn’s photograph has the capacity to upset the viewer. But in reality this is an iconic image laden with irony. Steyn does not elevate Terre’Blanche but deconstructs the popular view of him as a charismatic leader of the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging or “Afrikaner Resistance Movement”. Terre’Blance was the founder of this neo-Nazi, white supremacist paramilitary organisation in South Africa in the 1970s).

Steyn shows Terre’Blanche struggling to control his enormous black Friesian horse, Attila. The photo is really a snapshot, one taken in a series during a photo shoot the photographer had with Terre’Blanche, but despite its unplanned nature, the picture has a classical tableau composition. Steyn chose to present the photo as a large print to draw attention to this remarkable view of a defeated and tired Terre’Blanche clearly being overpowered by an enormous black force – a reality Terre’Blanche was fighting  for most of his life.

Whilst Steyn reminds the viewer of cruel role players of South Africa’s past, Thoka challenges the viewer to look intensely at the reality of our current society. Thoka questions here whether all South Africans are experiencing freedom as she is narrating the story of the outcome that some domestic workers face every day. Thoka is a known photographer voicing and standing up for women’s rights.

Figure 6: Lebo Thoka. 2019. House of gold. Archival Print. Photo Credit: Jano Myburgh. ArtbankSA collection.

With House of Gold Thoka narrates the story of a domestic worker, and a livein nanny who was fired after 13 years of service to her employer. Her total income was R1000 per month to support her own two children. She lost her job as a domestic worker without warning, and her employer gave her R100 to use as a taxi fare home.

Thoka unashamedly exposes unsympathetic realities of women and openly suggests through her photography that today our supposedly liberated society proclaims equality and freedom for women, but still it seems somewhat like an idealist’s  pipe dream. As Lebo Thoka says: “The South African justice system does not prioritise the protection of women because it is necessary, but only when it is beneficial to do so”. Lebo Thoka (2021) available on http://davidkrutprojects.com/artist/lebo-thoka.

Photography as a powerful tool for documentation:

Documentation photography played an enormous role in the history of photography from the 1950s to the present. Patricia Heyes summarises the role of documentary photography by stating that “the photograph resembles a contact sheet; it has the look of a film strip before editing. This openness is a rawness, producing what Elizabeth Edwards calls ‘the first transcript of history’. There is the history of photography but there is also the photography of history. I think this is where ‘documentary’ photographers have been underestimated”. (2007:151)

With this in mind I specifically zoom into the work of David Goldblatt, Roger Ballen, and Mikhael Subotzky.

Figure 7: David Goldblatt. 1963. Child with a replica of a Zulu Hut, Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria. Silver Gelatin Print. Photo Credit: Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s photo archive.

David Goldblatt has been critically exploring South African society in his photographs throughout his career. He was specifically interested in people and critical conditions in the society in which he lived.  Goldblatt was born and raised in Randfontein, 40 km from Johannesburg. His surroundings consisted of a mining community and middle-class white Afrikaners. Goldblatt stated that “I had begun to use the camera long before this in a socially-conscious way. In the early 1950’s I had felt that I had a mission: I had to show the world the terrible things that were happening in South Africa. But I had long since discarded that grand notion. I realised that I was neither a missionary with a camera nor a political activist. I realised that I wanted to engage through the camera with people’s values and how they were expressed. I wanted to go to the roots of people’s lives” (Krog, A & Powell I 2007:  13).  It is interesting how the Afrikaner nation resisted Goldblatt’s photography, and persisted in giving it a political undertone, which was not Goldblatt’s intent.

Goldblatt’s first steps as full-time photographer in the world were not easy in the 1960s, especially as perceived by Afrikaans-speaking people. In his article The anxiety of identity and Some Afrikaners, Ivor Powell pointed out that this photograph, Child with a replica of a Zulu Hut, Voortrekker Monument, made headlines in the Dagbreek en Sondag nuus (24/8/1969). The headline stated “Bloed sal kook oor dié foto” (Blood will boil!). Powell declared that Dabreek en Sondag nuus, the only Afrikaans-language Sunday paper at the time, had an ominous response to Goldblatt’s work. The Dagbreek critic was especially upset that this photo amongst others was published in an international publication, Camera, and how the world would now have a skewed view of how true ‘Afrikaners’  were represented. With Goldblatt’s photos, their social class, ‘whiteness’ and ‘superiority’ in an apartheid South Africa were shown inferior to an international audience.

The major problem the critic had about ‘with a replica of a Zulu Hut, Voortrekker Monument is the “juxtaposition of the Zulu hut edifice that is the Voortrekker Monument. The disrespect implicitly ascribed to Goldblatt is exacerbated, according to the critic by the photographic detail in the image: the presence of an untidy even sluttish dressed woman and the little girl who (instead of gazing in awe at the looming squatness of the Afrikaner holy of holies) us peering, bum in the air, into the dim interior of the Zulu hut” (Powell 2007:  19).

Underlying conceptual comparison of photo documentation, with a specific interest in how people live, represented and documented, are to be found in the work of Roger Ballen, Ballen and Mikhael Subotzky.

Roger Ballen is a photographer known for documenting places and people in a peculiar way. Dorps: The Small Towns of South Africa (1986) is a publication of black and white photographs of the small ‘dorps’ or towns of rural South Africa and their isolated inhabitants. Ballen stated that a ‘dorp’ is more than a definition of space and population. “Since I have travelled extensively throughout the world, many of my past photos have been taken in seemingly ‘exotic’ places. Whereas I am drawn by the sense of decay, isolation and eccentricity embodied by these ‘dorps’, many others find being there essentially boring” (Ballen 1986:  1). Ballen travelled South Africa from 1982-1986 visiting scattered towns and villages.

As Heidi Erdman pointed out, “Ballen’s dark world, as portrayed in each of his photographs, is a conscious construction. These images only exist in Ballen’s imagination. Ideas for these images may have been born during his travels as a geologist. But small towns seem to have interested him since the beginning of his career. It is perhaps here where he spotted the unfamiliar and eccentricity in human behaviour and form” (Erdman 2012: 15).

Figure 8: Roger Ballen. 1984. Bedroom in Bethuli. Hand printed selenium toned photograph on fibre paper. Photo credit: Roger Ballen, Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s archive.

Bedroom in Bethuli (1984) leaves the viewer with little or no information as to the owner of this bedroom, or who is staying there. To some extent Ballen allows the viewer to sneak a quick look into someone else’s private bedroom. Some identifiable images (like the portrait of a little boy) seem familiar (as it was quite iconic prints that hung in most old houses), but other than that this room remains anonymous or even secret.

Bedroom in Bethuli (1984) reminds me of the famous quote of Diane Arbus, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” Diane Arbus (Circa 1960s).

Mikhael Subotzky’s “photography film and video works are concerned with the structures of narrative and representation. He is also interested in the relationship between storytelling and the formal contingencies of image making” Mikhael Subotzky (2019)  available on http://www.subotzkystudio.com/about/.

The relationship of Subotzky’s work to that of Roger Ballen and David Goldblatt is interesting as Subotzky is also known for travelling, visiting small towns and narrating stories of people, or, in the case of this specific photo, Shining a warden’s shoes, Beaufort West Prison (2006) telling a confined, enclosed narrative of prison life.

Figure 9: Mikhael Subotzky. 2006. Shining a warden’s shoes, Beaufort West Prison. Light jet c-pring on Fuji crystal archive paper. Photo Credit: Mikhael Subotzky, Oliewenhuis Art Museum’s archives.

Subotzky’s first body of photographic work, Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners), was an in-depth study of the South African penal system. Umjiegwana (The Outside) and Beaufort West extended this investigation to the relationship between everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa and the historical, spatial, and institutional structures of control. As Jonny Steinberg stated, as one enters “Beaufort West, a scruffy ugly interruption a brief absence of landscape, rather than the presence of something else, one encounters a traffic circle, prison: these I did not see. Thousands of travellers, like me, may have not seen it but this was the spectacle that initially caught Subotzky’s eye. Once you think about it, the very idea of this prison, slap-bang in the middle South Africa’s most travelled national highway, is so bracing you are not sure whether to find it funny, tragic or simply insane” (Steinberg 2008: 74).

As Steinberg says, the power of Subotzky’s work is that his photographs give you a sense that you are looking at something but never have seen. For me, Shining a warden’s shoes, Beaufort West Prison (2006) reveals, almost similarly to  Roger Ballen’s Bedroom in Bethuli, a private enclosed moment, almost the ‘behind the scenes’ of prison life. The irony is the positionality the warden finds himself in. He is seemingly just as enclosed and trapped as the prisoners, although he thinks he has the power and command over the two men with him. The gaze of the male figure on the right-hand side of the photo draws the attention to the prisoners, not the warden. There is potential of reversed role of power in the photo.

Photography as performance:

In concluding this article I want to tie together all the concepts it touches upon. It was a natural choice to close  with photography as performance. The performative aspect,  one could argue, is present in all facets of photography.  Many questions arise even when a photograph is seen as a documented moment in time. The photographer still has  the ability to use a certain angle, stage the image to some point, or to recast the historical narrative in an artistic way, which is another  part of photography as performance (such as with the work of Antonia Steyn, Goldblatt and Mtshali).

Images of war, war sites, safety, gender, identity, could summarise what the viewer can anticipate in this exhibition.

I belief the video work of Paul Emmanuel, 3 SAI – a rite of passage (2009) summarises and unites most of the  concepts within  the Freedom from…Freedom to…Freedom to be exhibition.

Figure 10: Paul Emmanuel. 2009. 3 SAI – a rite of passage. Digital Blue Ray disk. Photo credit: Paul Emmanuel, still image from 3 SAI – a rite of passage. Oliewenhuis Art Museum Permanent Collection’s archive.

3 SAI – A rite of passage was conceived by Emmanuel’s fascination with ‘supposed’ or perpetuated masculinity in South Africa. Using military recruits, Emmanuel decided to photograph an actual military recruit, head shaving, while it was happening. Emmanuel stated that “after some research, I discovered that there are only two military bases left in South Africa which perform this obligatory ‘rite of passage’ on their bases. One in Oudtshoorn and the other at the Third South African Infantry Battalion (3SAI) based in Kimberley” (Paul Emmanuel Artist Statement available on https://africa.si.edu/exhibits/transitions/bio.html).

As Michael O’Sullivan wrote, with Transitions, Emmanuel showcases with the head shaving activity, an ambiguity, which suggests both violence and tenderness.  He noted that “in the 14-minute film in which the barbers from the Third South African Infantry are shown in slow motion buzz-cutting one young soldier’s head after another.”  (Washington Post 2010). These young men, at the 3 SAI, (voluntarily or non- voluntarily) enter now a rite of passage to masculinity, lose their identity, are taught how to be ‘real’ men and are being stripped of their youthfulness. Here, they will learn ultimate control and discipline.

In my opinion, the ending of the video piece is the most captivating part of this artwork. Countless white t-shirts hang meticulously in long lines, the wind blowing them from side to side in a picturesque landscape scene. However, abandoned. One gets lost in the serenity and calmness of the countryside. The hanging t-shirts showcase the two parallel worlds these soldiers find themselves in, one of control, order and discipline; the other anonymity and abandonment.

Reference list:

Ballen, R. 1986. Dorps, the Small Towns of South Africa.  Cape Town: Clifton Publications (PTY) LTD.

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen. 2011. Representation of war wakes us from childhood dreams. Mail and Guardian. (https://mg.co.za/article/2011-01-20-representation-of-war-wakes-us-from-childhood-dreams/) (accessed on 23 April 2022)

Crane, S. 1997. Memory, Distortion and History in the Museum. History and Theatre: 36(4): 44-63.

Erdmann, Heidi. 2012. Roger Ballen/Die Antwoord. Cape Town: Erdmann contemporary.

Ernest Cole (2021).https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ernest-cole [accessed on 22 April 2022].

Hayes, P. 2007. Power, Secrecy, Proximity: A Short History of South African Photography. Kronos, no 33 (November 2007): 139-579. University of the Western Cape.https://www.jstor.org/stable/41056585 [accessed on 12 April 2022].

https://www.bookforum.com/print/2303/a-biography-of-diane-arbus-offers-a-detailed-portrait-of-an-artist-longing-for-connection-16367 [accessed on 19 April 2022]

Krog, A & Powell I.  2007.  Some Afrikaners revisited. David Goldblatt.  Roggebaai: Umuzi.

Lebo Thoka (2021) http://davidkrutprojects.com/artist/lebo-thoka [accessed on 26 April 2022].

Leica Camera (2019, February 21). Jürgen Schadeburg-Leica Hall of Fame Award 2018. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjaVnZKCEI&ab_channel=LeicaCamera [accessed on 23 April 2022].

Mikhael Subotzky (2019) available on http://www.subotzkystudio.com/about/.

Mphahlele, E. 1955. For Freedom. In Schadeburg, J. 1994. Sof’ town blues: images from the black ‘50s. South Africa: Pinegowrie

Muller, W. 2019. The Effect of the 1978 Cassinga Raid on the Border War, Journal of Contemporary History 44(1): 26-46. Southern Journal for contemporary history, University of the Free State. https://journals.ufs.ac.za/index.php/jch/article/view/3936 [Accessed on 23 April 2022].

Nomusa Musah Mtshali: https://nomusamusamtshali.pb.online/artiststatement-nomusamusamtshali [accessed on 20 April 2022]

O’Sullivan, M. (2010, May). At Smithsonian’s African art museum: Rites of passage, drawn precisely. The Washington Post. Washington Post Company, Whashington, DC, USA, May. Available from: https://www.paulemmanuel.net/Works/currentprojects/Transitions/transitionstexts/transitionsreviews/maintransitionsreviews.html

Paul Emmanuel Artist Statement available on https://africa.si.edu/exhibits/transitions/bio.html

Powell, I. 2007. The anxiety of identity and some Afrikaners. In Krog, A & Powell I.  2007.  Some Afrikaners revisited. David Goldblatt.  Roggebaai: Umuzi. P19-28

Schadeburg, J. 1994. Sof’ town blues: images from the black ‘50s. South Africa: Pinegowrie

Steenberg, J. 2008. Catalogue essay in Subotzky, M. 2008. Beaufort West. London: Chris Boot (p74 – 75)

Subotzky, M. 2008. Beaufort West. London: Chris Boot.

[1] This term for memory space is used by the French historian Pierre Nora, and is a concept related to collective memory, stating that certain places, objects or events can have special significance to a group’s remembrance.

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