Tuesday, April 19, 2011

At the V&A, contemporary South African photography

The Victoria & Albert Museum presents Figures and Fictions, which opened April 12 and runs until July 17. This show of contemporary photography highlights 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. Each photographer is represented by one or more projects that are 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 this 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.

Many of the works shown in the exhibition are 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.

The photograph: ‘Babalwa’, (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008.

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