In a country struggling to shape its identity in the wake of recent history, South African photographers have utilised their chosen medium as a tool to explore an ever-changing social and cultural climate. The role of photography in South Africa is difficult to define, its own identity constantly in flux, and distinctions between documentary photography, photojournalism, and art continue to blur and shift.
“Linked through their activism and political engagement, both artists have sought to unearth certain truths through their representations of everyday people.”
Some of the country’s most famous examples, photographers who have made their living in the grey area between article and aesthetic, are David Goldblatt and Zanele Muholi. Linked through their activism and political engagement, both artists have sought to unearth certain truths through their representations of everyday people. Where Goldblatt’s activism is quieter, inherent in his subject matter, Muholi’s activism is overt, radical.
Arguably South Africa’s most wellknown photographer, David Goldblatt’s striking, black-and-white images provided a poignant yet unflinching view of apartheid South Africa. Images like Walking the madam’s dog, Hillbrow (1972) and Margaret Mcingana, who later became famous as the singer Margaret Singana, at home, Sunday afternoon. Zola, Soweto (1970) continue to raise profound questions about inherent social structures and ideologies, suggesting nuanced ways of seeing that went beyond the immediacy of record.
While the historical significance of Goldblatt’s work resides in what it portrays, what continues to resonate is what it suggested and provoked, especially amongst younger artists trying to make their way in the world. Santu Mofokeng, another of South Africa’s legendary photographers, cited Goldblatt, along with Peter Magubane and Jürgen Schadeberg, as having “made photography a respectable occupation” for young Black photographers.
Goldblatt – who passed away in 2018 – influenced many now-well-known artists on the contemporary art scene in South Africa, notably mentoring and developing a heartfelt personal connection with indomitable photographer and filmmaker Zanele Muholi. Having become internationally recognised for their powerful, black-and-white portraits of LGBTQI+ women in South Africa, Muholi self-identifies as a visual activist, and their development as a photographer is deeply intertwined with their advocacy.
Works like Thembi Nyoka (2007) from Muholi’s Faces and Phases series exemplify the artist’s commitment to their community, portraying women who are proud, defiant, comfortable in their own skin. Muholi devoted years to Faces and Phases (2006-2016), and has been exposed to innumerable acts of aggression and violence during the course of their career. Despite this, the artist continues to pursue their work, in part to insist on a visual history and visibility for members of their long-overlooked community.
Lately, however, self-portraiture has taken on new prominence in the artist’s practice. Somnyama Ngonyama or Hail the Dark Lioness – a series of black and white self-portraits that elevates everyday domestic objects like clothespins and wire sponges into elaborate hair pieces and costumes – is a response to racism, past and present. In this series, Muholi has staged or dramatised reality, situating themselves in it as characters, creating a photographic series that takes a highly individual concept as a starting point. Here, the old dividing line between the work of art and the documentary image, between subjective interpretation and objective representation, becomes nebulous, an artificial distinction between a historical reality and a figurative one.
These black-and-white photographs, by both Goldblatt and Muholi, invite us to consider the grey area between the objective and the subjective image, where the aesthetic decisions of the artist are not contradictory to the truth but work to reinforce it, in frames rich with layers of concept and experience.
An article by Fay Janet Jackson
Featured image : David Goldblatt, “Walking the ‘madam’s’ dog, Hillbrow”, June 1972. Gelatin silver print in fibre-based paper. Courtesy David Goldblatt, Legacy trust and Goodman Gallery.
This article was written for The Art Momentum | Cape Town Art Fair Artpaper 2020.
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