Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

Lucy Davies writes an excellent article in the BJP about an exhibition of South African photographers at the V & A

Messina/Musina and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa, 2006 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town & Yossi Milo, New York.

“South African photographers have caught the world’s attention and are now being recognised as some of the most exciting and inventive artists at work. BJP talks to some of them as the V&A Museum welcomes them in a comprehensive exhibition. The weight of South Africa’s past lies heavy on its present, a burden its photographers cannot ignore. And yet, in their attempt to make sense of post-apartheid society and devise new approaches to its complexities, the dynamism and urgency of these photographers has caught worldwide attention, and they are now being recognised as some of the most exciting and inventive artists at work. Lucy Davies travelled to South Africa to meet a handful of them ahead of the V&A’s exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography. In Portrait with Keys, Ivan Vladislavic’s collection of loosely stitched, non-fiction encounters with the city of Johannesburg, the narrator imagines a map. At the time he is travelling westwards across the urban grid in a car with his friend Louise, past the house on Isipingo Street in the suburb of Belleville where the writer Herman Charles Bosman murdered his step-brother in 1926. “People should be made aware of this historic site,” says Ivan, and conjures in his mind a palimpsest to represent the city’s history, where “every violent death… above ground and below, by axe and blade and bullet” is marked on a map. It will form, he says, “a title deed to despair… cross-stitched in black, crumpling under the weight of sorrow as you struggle to unfold it on the dining room table”.

There is no question that the weight of South Africa’s past lies heavy on its present. Its collective memory has the butting insistence of the head of an animal that needs to be fed. The public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were first to map the ancient violations and prejudices for a post-apartheid generation, but in recent years these histories – and I use the plural because they are not always concordant – have been inscribed, reinterpreted, reappropriated, veiled and enacted by an exceptional number of photographers.

This month, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London will exhibit a selection of works from this new visual landscape, in a show titled Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (12 April – 17 July). Just 17 photographers were pulled from the stream by co-curators Tamar Garb and Martin Barnes, via a series of stringent criteria designed to illuminate the tense relationship South Africa has had with the depiction of its people. All the work has been produced over the past decade by practitioners living and working in South Africa, and all of it foregrounds a self-conscious engagement with the country’s distinct political and photographic past. Their voices are young and strong, capable, Barnes believes, “of holding their own on the worldwide market”.…….MORE

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