Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

'Blitz Maaneveld', David Goldblatt, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Blitz Maaneveld', David Goldblatt, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

In 2011, Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography highlighted the work of 17 South African photographers, all of whom live and work in the country and whose images were made between 2000 and 2010. The photographers' projects were linked by the depiction of people and a self-conscious engagement with South Africa's political and photographic past.

Photographs showing figures raise pertinent issues of identity: how the gaze of the camera, photographer and viewer is returned by the subject, and the balance of power which that interaction implies. The 'figure' also implies not only the human figure but also the metaphorically figurative. Photographs can be like a 'figure' of speech, composed of familiar words but containing an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation.

As the Fictions part of the exhibition's title suggests, it points not just to the geographical and social specificity of these photographs but also to the enigmatic relationship with the 'real' world that they seem to depict. A photograph is always a translation, distillation or filter of reality seen from the physical and conceptual standpoint of the person creating the image - as well as that of the viewer.

'Babalwa', (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Babalwa', (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Many of the works shown were extracts from extended essayistic sequences, but can nevertheless be understood as fragments containing the essence of the whole. Many of the photographers' series address, among other concerns: the threshold between documentary photography and fine art practice; the balance of the specific and the universal and the dialogue between the local and the global.

The excitement and urgency surrounding photography in South Africa today is partly explained by its local context: embedded in colonial history, ethnography, anthropology, journalism and political activism, the best photography emerging from the country has absorbed and grapples with its weighty history, questioning, manipulating and revivifying its visual codes and blending them with contemporary concerns. Post-Apartheid, complex and fundamental issues - race, society, gender, identity - remain very much on the surface. This is reflected by image makers who harness the resulting scenes as a form of creative tension within their personal vision. Here, distinctive photographic voices have emerged: local in character and subject matter, but of wider international interest because of their combined intensity.

Video: Tamar Garb, joint Curator of Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, discusses the background to the exhibtion.


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The Photographers


Jodi Bieber, born 1967

'Gail' (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Gail' (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Bieber, a Johannesburg-based photographer, began her career as a photojournalist and remains engaged with the documentary tradition. Real Beauty relates to the culture of advertising and Western ideals of female body shape, increasingly influential in South Africa. Rejecting the cult of perfection and the use of Photoshop to produce it, Bieber advertised for volunteer female sitters with whom to collaborate.

Dressed in their underwear and photographed in their own homes, in the poses of their choice, each subject was invited to project her own personality and fantasy into the photographs. The results reveal a complex relationship between self-image and body identity and their relationship to fashion, photography and the media.

' "Real Beauty" has been inspired by a number of events, the primary being my own life. My forties have brought a feeling of more comfort within my own skin than when I was younger even though my body shape has shifted. This project is an extension of a Dove billboard advertising campaign in London showing ordinary women in their underwear advocating and speaking up for Real Beauty. Advertising campaigns don't usually draw my attention, but this one did. A model sitting next to me on the way from London to Paris emphasised the extent to which Photoshop is used to enhance beauty. She was not in the least bit concerned about the rings under her eyes as these imperfections would easily be erased after her photographic shoot. A BBC radio documentary spoke about an increase in the cases of black anorexic women in South Africa, as the full figured body which was once more favourable is no longer as desirable as Western body shapes. I felt a strong need to create a body of work that goes against what the media has depicted as beautiful. Even within a complex society such as South Africa, across all communities, women hold unnecessary perceptions of self doubt around themselves and their beauty from an early age.'

Video: Jodi Bieber

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Kudzanai Chiurai, born 1981

'Untitled I', Kudzanai Chiurai, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Untitled I', Kudzanai Chiurai, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Chiurai was born in Zimbabwe and his early work focussed on the political, economic and social situation of his homeland. Now living in Johannesburg, he is an activist and artist (painter, designer, editor and photographer) who addresses issues such as xenophobia, displacement, consumerism and black empowerment in his work.

His satirical series The Parliament depicts the fictitious characters of an imaginary government cabinet in a parody of media representations of masculinity and political power. The series draws upon the conventions of African studio portraiture, dramatised magazine features, hip-hop, film and fashion as well as the story lines, stereotyped characters and plots of soap operas. These mediations also inform his decorative portraits of young Jo'burgers seen against cloth backdrops imprinted with political logos and figures.

'The person I use for many of these portraits is essentially a performer; he's a pop icon in South Africa who everyone knows from television and radio. His name is Siyabonga Ngwekazi and it was important to use him as he works in popular culture - he is part of that collective consciousness and a South African audience would immediately recognize him. He is a popular icon himself and people look at him as a model for style and fashion. So to see him outside of that TV context is to be aware of the artifice of the roles he adopts, of his performance of black masculinity and popular culture as image… I wrote the briefs for the series and started working with stylists and a photographer and borrowed clothes from people.'

Kudzanai Chuirai, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Husain and Hasan Essop, born 1985

'Night Before Eid', Hasan & Husain Essop, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Night Before Eid', Hasan & Husain Essop, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

The Essops are twin brothers based in Cape Town who create staged photographs depicting aspects of local Muslim life. In the series Halaal Art they show the preparation and serving of a Halaal meal as a ritual process of purification and cleansing.

Each scene is performed for the camera and later digitally reconstructed. In Islam, depicting the figure is controversial or prohibited and the artists are careful about limiting figural representation to their own bodies, for which they alone assume responsibility. Their work refers to the potential contradictions between modernity and tradition, Islam and the West, and the space that young Muslim men occupy and negotiate in a secular environment.

' "Halaal Art" was something that started during our trip to Cuba. It was about the way we were living, the challenges we faced as Muslims in a country that didn't have Islam. It started with finding meat, a lamb, and sacrificing it Halaal; making something that's impure, pure for your body to eat. We tried to explore that: what does that mean? We take where our food comes from so for granted. We went to the abattoir in Cape Town where we get our Halaal meat and we shot in a kind of alley, to show the abundance of nutrition here. It is horrific to some extent, but it is also a beautiful ritual if you understand it and you respect it and you respect the animal…These photographs are tricky because they take a lot of planning. At the scene we set up the tripod. I will test the light, see how the light is working. I will look at Husain and say, 'do you like this angle?' and he's like, 'maybe you shift it like this' and we have that discussion. This happens so quickly you know, because that's the beauty of the work, it has to happen quickly, the light changes all the time and you want to stay true to what you are photographing and then he will do a series of acts [which] I will photograph.'

Video: Hasan and Husain Essop, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa 2010

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David Goldblatt, born 1930

'Peter Mogale's advert at the corner of 11 Avenue and 3 Street Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, 20 November 1999', David Goldblatt, 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Peter Mogale's advert at the corner of 11 Avenue and 3 Street Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, 20 November 1999', David Goldblatt, 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Goldblatt has photographed his native South Africa since the late 1940s, acutely observing its social, cultural and economic divides, and becoming a powerful influence on those who have followed him. Working in the documentary tradition, Goldblatt has noted: 'It's the attempt to be intensely engaged with the particular that propels me.'

Recent projects shown here include Ex-Offenders, depicting former criminals posing at the scenes of their crimes alongside texts narrating their life stories. Another project, Tradesmen, sees artisans photographed at their work-places next to the hand-painted roadside signs advertising their services. Refugees from Zimbabwe sheltering in the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg, shows a bird's eye view of a displaced mass of sleeping bodies, taking temporary refuge from xenophobic attacks.

(A display of Goldblatt's earlier work from the Apartheid years is featured in the V&A Photography Gallery, room 38A).

'In post-Apartheid South Africa I became acutely aware that little signs were mushrooming on our sidewalks and on our trees and poles advertising all kinds of services: painting, building, tilling, carpentry. Often these were very crude but there was no question of what was happening. Suddenly black people were able and willing to offer their services within the suburban life of Johannesburg in ways that were not only [previously] unknown but forbidden because black people were not allowed to trade within white group areas. And so to me this was an indication, at a very day-to-day level, a very mundane level, that liberation had come. And so I started photography some of the signs and the obvious move then was to phone these people who offered services and asked if I could come take photographs. Again there was this unspoken relationship that existed or was carried over if you like from the years before, where I could I suppose exert a certain 'rights of the manor' as a white. But these people were not in this market, they asserted their own independence and one or two of them refused me, which they had every right to do.'

David Goldblatt, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Pieter Hugo, born 1976

'Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa', Pieter Hugo. © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa', Pieter Hugo. © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Hugo, based in Cape Town, began his career as a photojournalist. For him documentary photography is: 'a type of ecstatic experience where one looks at the pictures and one experiences truth, even if it's not the truth of an accountant'.

The selection here includes a group portrait from the series Messina/Musina that raises questions about race and the nature of the family. Another work shows young Xhosa men in tweeds, the customary dress for initiates, after circumcision. An image from The Hyena and Other Men represents one of the travelling sellers of traditional medicines from Nigeria who tame hyenas for street performances. In an image from Wild Honey Collectors, set in Ghana, a figure poses wearing makeshift protective clothing. And a worker at a technology waste dump, also in Ghana, is shown against a toxic landscape, with the words 'Sun City', the name of a South African holiday resort, imprinted on his vest.

'There's something very condescending in assuming custodianship of other people's representation. Of course, that's the nature of photography, the photographer has the final say in which picture goes out but I question whether there's no reciprocity between subject and portraitist. In a way it's a recording of a collaborative event. So you can't assume that the subject of a photograph is passive and has no agency. And the way power is played out in photographs is complicated. If one looks at the "Permanent Error" series, and "The Hyena and Other Men" and "The Honey Collectors"', one of the themes that keeps coming through is the issue of power and submission and domination. Whether it's to do with the geopolitics between the first and so called third world, whether it's man and animal with "Hyenas", or man and environment with "Honey Collectors".'

Pieter Hugo, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Terry Kurgan, born 1958

'Santos Cossa', Terry Kurgan, 2004. Courtesy of Terry Kurgan

'Santos Cossa', Terry Kurgan, 2004. Courtesy of Terry Kurgan

Kurgan, a Johannesburg-based artist, is interested in the nature of photographic transactions and she often collaborates with people and communities in her work. For Park Pictures, she dealt with the culture and economy of over forty street photographers who take portraits in Joubert Park, one of the few green spaces in inner city Johannesburg. Kurgan has plotted their positions numerically on a map, which provides a key to the project.

Her portraits are accompanied by texts that list the personal details of the photographers, invoking their life stories. Alongside Kurgan's own portraits is a selection of unclaimed photographs by the park photographers left by their sitters and bought by Kurgan herself.

'I started walking around the park and discovered, to my delight, that the park was full of street photographers. At that time I had become very interested in the theme of migration and how migration was transforming the city. I was trying to find a way of showing those demographic shifts and I remembered that the photographers held on to photographs that were never claimed by their clients. Looking back at photographs unclaimed over ten years, one would get a sense of who was coming to the city in 1990 and who was coming to it in 2000 and in 2005. Another part of the project was to map each photographer's position in the park, because I was so stuck by how inviolable those positions were. You couldn't just walk into the park pick up you camera and work there. You had to find your way there through very complex networks that in many cases began far away from Johannesburg: Zimbabwe, Ghana. Mozambique. I was interested in how life moves past these photographers very quickly in the park'.

Video: Terry Kurgan, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010

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Sabelo Mlangeni, born 1980

'Madlisa' (Country Girls Series), Sabelo Mlangeni, 2009. © Sabelo Mlangeni. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Madlisa' (Country Girls Series), Sabelo Mlangeni, 2009. © Sabelo Mlangeni. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Mlangeni lives and works in Johannesburg. Describing himself as a 'camera man', he is engaged with the documentary tradition and produces visual essays, gaining access over long periods to overlooked subcultures and communities.

The Men Only series focuses on the run-down George Goch hostel, Johannesburg. Built in 1961 to house migrant mineworkers, today it is still open only to men, typically taxi drivers and security guards. Mlangeni uses soft focus shots and close-ups to move beyond this stereotypical image of it as a violent and unlawful place and to convey glimpses of male intimacy and daily life.The Country Girls series was taken over a period of six years. It is a personalised portrait of gay life in rural areas. The 'girls' are cross-dressing men whom Mlangeni photographs clothed as he finds them, and who perform self-consciously for the camera.

'Most of the people and spaces that I work with are forgotten in our fast-moving society. I look at those things that people shy away from in the world, and use that to tell my stories. The "Country Girls" started in 2003; it was the wedding of my friend Arthur and Thando, his boyfriend, in Ermelo. When I was invited there, I saw there was a group of gay guys living in different small towns in Mpumalanga, from Piet Retief to Ermelo,Standerton and Secunda and Bethal. From 2004 sometimes I would go visitthem once a year, but from 2008 I started to visit them more. Because in the time that I've spent with them, the one thing that I've noticed is their "togetherness". They are very close to each other; it's like a small community of gay men where even if they have problems and issues from the community about their sexuality they are still able to push it! Because for me, coming out as a gay man with a dress, is a very political thing.'

Sabelo Mlangeni, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Zanele Muholi, born 1972

'Martin Machapa' (from the series Beulahs), 2010. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Martin Machapa' (from the series Beulahs), 2010. © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Muholi's work addresses the reality of what it is to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) in South Africa. She identifies herself as a visual activist, dealing with issues of violation, violence and prejudice that she and her community face, despite South Africa's progressive constitution.

In Faces and Phases, she sets out to give visibility to black lesbians and to celebrate the distinctiveness of individuals through the traditional genre of portraiture. The portraits are taken outdoors with a hand-held camera to retain spontaneity and often shown in a grid to highlight difference and diversity. In the series Beulahs, she shows young gay men, wearing Zulu beads and other accessories usually worn by women, who invert normative gender codes in both costume and pose. At the same time her photographs evoke tourist postcards and recycled stereotypes of Africans and recall traditional anthropological and ethnographic iconography.

' "Faces and Phases", is a group of black and white portraits that I have been working on from 2006 until now - it has become a lifetime project. The project is about me, the community that I'm part of. I was born in the township: I grew up in that space. Most of us grew up in a household where heterosexuality was the norm. When you grow up, you think that the only thing that you have to become as a maturing girl or woman is to be with a man; you have to have children, and also you need to have lobola or "bride price" paid for you. For young men, the expectation for them is to be with women and have wives and procreate: that's the kind of space which most of us come from. We are seen as something else by society - we are seen as deviants. We're not going to be here forever, and I wanted to make sure that we leave a history that is tangible to people who come after us.'

Zanele Muholi, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Santu Mofokeng, born 1956

'Nousta, Rister and Noupa Mkansi at home in Dan, Tzaneen, their parents Richard and Onica are both dead' (from the series Child Headed Households), Santu Mofokeng, 2007. © Santu Mofokeng

'Nousta, Rister and Noupa Mkansi at home in Dan, Tzaneen, their parents Richard and Onica are both dead' (from the series Child Headed Households), Santu Mofokeng, 2007. © Santu Mofokeng

Mofokeng lives in Johannesburg where he began his career as a photojournalist. But he has long been engaged with the poetic and symbolic potential of black and white photography. As he has noted: 'My approach has always been based on poetry and philosophy, in standing back. I don't believe in one truth: I like to look at things from many sides.'

The series Chasing Shadows documents a set of caves used both as a Christian prayer site and a place of traditional healing. Mofokeng's concern with the rituals, costume and ceremonies is balanced with personal interest, in a portrait of his brother, seeking a cure for AIDS. Another series, Child-Headed Households, registers the blight of AIDS without depicting it directly. Here, Mofokeng frames the new reality of families formed of sibling communities who fare for themselves in impoverished circumstances.

'When I began working on "Chasing Shadows", I was working on metaphorical biography about what life was like under apartheid. My first project with a camera was to look at people praying in the church, on the trains, on their way to and from work. So I've been interested in religion and spirituality for sometime. That was 1986. After 1994, I wanted some kind of closure about the work I was doing in the townships; basically saying "I'm done with social documentary". I could not continue to justify invading other people's spaces,because if you show social maladies the benefit accrues to the photographer but it doesn't change anything. Looking at this consciousness, which is religion, it makes me wonder about the reasons that apartheid lasted so long, but this kind of sensibility could help sustain people even during hard times. This series and the "Child Headed Household" series are related because both have to do with AIDS in some way'.

Video: Santu Mofokeng, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010

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Zwelethu Mthethwa, born 1960

'Untitled' (from The Brave Ones series), Zwelethu Mthethwa, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

'Untitled' (from The Brave Ones series), Zwelethu Mthethwa, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Mthethwa, a painter and photographer, is based in Cape Town. His series The Brave Ones shows ceremonially dressed Zulu boys and men from the Shembe religious community. The costume they wear is usually reserved for ritual dancing and worship at annual festivals. Here, however, Mthethwa isolates his subjects from the context of the festival and poses them against the Arcadian landscape of Kwa Zulu Natal.

The mixed visual code of Shembe ceremonial dress (shirts and ties, football socks, and skirts worn as kilts) combines references to Scottish Highlanders, once stationed in the region, with traditional African costume, while blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine fashion.

'What fascinates me is how and why people clothe themselves in these different ways. That's why the setting is a forest, the landscape, because I love the KwaZulu-Natal landscape, I love the greens, I love the hills. For me, by separating them from the ritual and anchoring them in that landscape, I am telling you a story. Photography for me is all about editing. When you edit you retell stories and create new stories. I am not interested in the church per se, or in the ritual; that's why I found the women very boring because they are wearing their traditional stuff and I am so used to traditional hair, traditional skirts. For me the young men were just amazing because of the clash of identities. You know, where does the bowtie come from, why are they wearing the bowtie during the day? Because in my western thinking it's very formal evening attire. Why do their shirts look like women's blouses with frills? It's fascinating.'

Zwelethu Mthethwa, Interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Guy Tillim, born 1962

'Petros Village, Malawi, 2006', Guy Tillim, 2006. © Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Petros Village, Malawi, 2006', Guy Tillim, 2006. © Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Tillim, who started out as a photojournalist, now often works in African locations affected by war and poverty. For Petros Village, Malawi, he spent one week photographing a rural village in central Malawi.

His portraits of the villagers seek to convey not so much their poverty as their sense of dignity. These are interspersed with fragmentary views of scenes linked by threads, limbs or leads, and which are shot from oblique angles and a high vantage point. Little of the sky or surrounding landscape is shown. Tillim's visual language is lyrical, suggestive and personal, capturing the spaces between events and the intricacies of daily experience.

'Petros Village is about 50 kilometres north of the capital Lilongwe. Rural, but not remote, the villagers rely on a local market for sale of tobacco and beans for cash, and grow maize as a staple food. The village takes its name from its chief, Petros James. I met Petros with Dr Piero Bestagini and Moses Chigona from the Saint Egidio feeding centre and laboratory at nearby Mtengawantenga. Within a few minutes of meeting him, he had agreed that I could spend a week in the village. Piero asked where I would stay and without hesitation Petros took us to his homestead and showed us his sleeping quarters. He and his wife would move into the room where they prepared food. It was only a day or two later that I realised the significance of this concession. The hospitality I received is so open-handed, so otherworldly, that it's almost impossible to imagine it in the place I come from. I try to place it, this generosity of spirit. I think in clichés of traditional, rural hospitality, custom, things time-honoured and unmolested by city life. But the sense of it is elusive, muted by prejudice, obscured by ignorance.'

Guy Tillim, 2006


Berni Searle, born 1964

'Once Removed' (Head I, II & III), Berni Searle, 2008. © Berni Searle. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Once Removed' (Head I, II & III), Berni Searle, 2008. © Berni Searle. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Searle, a Cape Town artist, works with sculpture, installation and video, using photography as part of her practice. Her works often feature her own body, suggesting autobiographical narratives, as well as focusing more broadly on issues of gender, race, memory and classification in relation to South African and colonial history. Once Removed consists of two triptychs that present Searle's semi-naked body gradually being stained by dye dripping from a floral paper crown.

'The work is informed by ideas of veneration and ways in which we remember and commemorate, in this case through the incorporation of flowers and garlands. The material that I used is wet paper pulp, a heavy material that hugs and shapes and defines the contours of the body, emphasising the three-dimensionality of the body. I am interested in the transformation of the body through strategies of revealing and concealing - and in this work the idea of the veil facilitates that interest. We tend to think of the veil only in a Muslim context but it has a tradition in Christianity and in various ancient Roman civilisations where garlands and heavily draped headdresses and headgear were common. Christ's crown of thorns also comes to mind with this body of work. I have worked very strongly with colour, not only on a formal level in the way the bleeding and the seeping of colour is absorbed by the body and the garment, but also on a conceptual level so that the black flowers seem ominous. Although these are quiet works, there is a suggestion of suffocation, particularly as the hands are clasped, searching for comfort.'

Berni Searle, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Mikhael Subotzky, born 1981

'Street Party, Saxonwold' (from the series Security), Mikhael Subotzky, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Street Party, Saxonwold' (from the series Security), Mikhael Subotzky, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Subotzky, based in Johannesburg, draws on the history of documentary photography, though his large-scale images adopt a more monumental and spectacular aspect. Much of his recent work takes crime and violence as its subject, capturing the structures and rituals of surveillance.

The series Security takes as its subject the guards employed for protection by the middle and upper classes in wealthy districts of Johannesburg. It includes a watched-over street party and a visual catalogue of the garden sheds or 'Wendy houses' that guards sit in to defend the houses and properties of their employers.

'I have first experienced, then worked in, and now lived in the suburbs. When I was a child, Wendy Houses lived in suburban backyards for children to play in and imagine themselves in a castle or a mansion. By 2007, they had found their way past the houses and out through the front walls onto the suburban pavements. Stationed there like little models of the real houses behind them, they are a constant shelter to a succession of guards who travel from far-off places to inhabit them and watch the night through. These "Wendy's" or "Zozo's" as they are known are simple in design, just as a child would draw the most essential of houses. They are also one of the few direct visual manifestations of the fear that is implicit in the surroundings.'

Mikhael Subotzky, 2010


Jo Ractliffe, born 1961

'Woman on the footpath from Boa Vista to Roque Santeiro Market', Jo Ractliffe, 2007. © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

'Woman on the footpath from Boa Vista to Roque Santeiro Market', Jo Ractliffe, 2007. © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town

Ractliffe took up photography in the early 1980s, forging an approach in dialogue with traditional documentary practice. She has long been interested in the capacity of photography to register the residual effects of traumatic events from the past onto representations of places and populations.

Her series Terreno Ocupado traces the aftermath of the Border War fought by South Africa in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s. Known to South Africans as 'The Border', this was a place of mystery and myth to which family members and friends were sent during Ractliffe's youth. In 2006 she travelled to this area and among the ruins she found tiled murals mapping Portuguese explorations of Africa, echoes of a former colonial presence. Her photographs also depict the migrants that survive in the landscape and the traders in the sprawling market of Roque Santeiro.

'The work is really looking at Luanda and Angola five years after a civil war that went on for 30 odd years… [During the project] I had an argument with an Angolan general's wife who said, "I know people like you, you're not going to photograph the bank, you're not going to photograph these beautiful new complexes, you photograph the terrible parts of the city". But I don't want to do the sanitised picture of the oil high rises you know, because that's not it. I find what's very inspiring about Luanda and what I'm hoping to get in these pictures is a kind of enterprise, you know, the business of life. People are extraordinarily enterprising and people make [something] out of nothing.'

Jo Ractliffe, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010


Roelof Petrus Van Wyk, born 1969

'Young Afrikaner - a Self Portrait, Yo-Landi Vi$$er Fig. 1', Roelof Petrus van Wyk, 2009. © Roelof Petrus van Wyk. Courtesy of the artist

'Young Afrikaner - a Self Portrait, Yo-Landi Vi$$er Fig. 1', Roelof Petrus van Wyk, 2009. © Roelof Petrus van Wyk. Courtesy of the artist

Van Wyk lives and works in Johannesburg. A member of the Afrikaner community, descendents of the original seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, Van Wyk is part of a generation concerned with questioning the historic roles of their parents and redefining their identity as 'Africans'.

Young Afrikaner - A Self Portrait, a collection of iconic images of Van Wyk's peer group, draws on anthropological conventions once used for cataloguing 'racial types' by subjecting them to photographic display and measurement. The series also invokes formal studio headshots and painted portraiture.

'The project documents changing ideas of Afrikaner identity. I am interested in the transformation from what used to be a singular, government sanctioned identity, to something more personal and plural. It's about mapping that and seeing how much we've changed as a "tribe" really. Collaborating with individuals and listening to their stories, you start to weave a narrative. It's the relationship between species and specimens that interests me. That's the kind of logic I am working with If I talk to a stranger and say I am from Africa - and I often get this when I travel abroad - they look at me and they say: "that's just weird because you don't look African". Yet I am African. I belong to Africa. Afrikaners are Africans. We have a very specific history as the oppressor here.'

Video: Roelof Petrus Van Wyk, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010

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Nonsikelelo Veleko, born 1977

'Lesego, Miriam Makeba Street, Newtown, Johannesburg', Nonsikelelo Veleko, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

'Lesego, Miriam Makeba Street, Newtown, Johannesburg', Nonsikelelo Veleko, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Veleko is a Johannesburg-based photographer who explores the inventive dress, style and confidence of South Africa's 'born free' generation that has grown up after the end of Apartheid. Playing with the language of fashion photography and media representations of street culture, Veleko's images question how personal style and individuality are perceived and assumed in a post-modern African city.

Her series Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder spotlights young people who creatively construct their identities with colourful and flamboyant clothes, positioned against different urban backgrounds.

'My journey in photography arose from an interest in exploring identity. In earlier ongoing projects, I have profiled prejudice and reductive stereotyping. More than just documenting fashion and style, I am interested in how we read fashion, and how my subjects use their clothes to construct, and often deconstruct, their guises of identity. My subjects are rarely mainstream individuals. Many of them are characters that take risks in the ways that they declare themselves in the world, and in so doing are often vulnerable within the domains they inhabit, often at the edge of society.'

Nonsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko


Graeme Williams, born 1961

'Soweto' (from the Edge of Town series), Graeme Williams, 2006. © Graeme Williams

'Soweto' (from the Edge of Town series), Graeme Williams, 2006. © Graeme Williams

For The Edge of Town series, Williams developed the language of street photography in order to move beyond the documentary approach that he and others had previously used so systematically in the Apartheid era. Over a four-year period, he travelled to more than 100 towns around the country, seeking to capture a feeling or a mood rather than any particular event.

Williams worked only in early morning and evening light to create the long shadows and vibrant colours of his multi-layered images. Each image is skilfully framed, often close up and off-kilter, to create unexpected juxtapositions between its subjects. As Williams has noted: 'I wanted viewers to be slightly unsure of what was going on in each photograph and this reflects how I felt about change in South Africa at the time.'

'My approach was to "'hit and run". I chose never to photograph in the same place twice. I would drive to a town in the evening and photograph there and then I would drive to the next town so I could be there in the morning. I was interested in strong early morning or evening light. Harsh light, long shadows, so I was only able to photograph for about two or three hours a day. The demands were physically difficult but the most demanding thing was that there wasn't a set of parameters for photographing a particular thing each day. I had to find a situation that made visual and emotional sense. Days would go by without getting anything that approximated what I was feeling and that's why I think it took four years. I started the project in black and white but I wasn't able to get the feeling I wanted. Then I moved on to colour and then after another few months I worked out that I could only photograph in extreme light conditions in order to get the right emotion. Then I realised that I wanted to break down the distance and the "objective" feel of documentary photography and I wanted to break the barrier that photographers often set up between themselves and their subjects. This demanded that I get incredibly close to my subjects. So, some of the figures are very close to the lens. My modus operandi would be to drive around until I found something that resonated for me. I would wander into people's homes and environments and it was so amazing how people just let me in.'

Video: Graeme Williams, interviewed by Tamar Garb, South Africa, 2010

View transcript of video

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