Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography Edited by Tamar Garb

Edited by Tamar Garb
Steidl (256 p)  $58.00
ISBN-10: 3869302666 / ISBN-13: 978-3869302669

This ambitious volume, published as the catalogue to an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, presents a wide-ranging selection of the photography that has emerged in post-apartheid South Africa.  Showcasing photographs taken over the last decade by seventeen South African photographers, the book makes a strong case for a vibrant photographic culture, especially within portraiture and documentary work.

Garb, a London-based South African curator and art historian, includes an informative introductory essay and takes on the difficult task of identifying a representative cross-section of South Africa’s contemporary photography. Her curatorial agenda clearly includes showing a society in flux, with increasingly fluid notions of identity, race, culture, gender, and sexuality. Although one may wonder what her cultural assessment and selection of artists omits, the quality of the images leaves no doubt Garb that has an eye for talent.

A few examples of some of the powerful images in this anthology:

  • Nontslikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko makes full-length portraits of young adults wearing colorful patterns amidst relatively busy backgrounds. Almost miraculously, she manages to keep her compositions clean.  Her work knowingly evokes African textiles where multiple bright colors and patterns are harmonized within a single fabric.

  • Shooting in Nigeria, South African photographer Pieter Hugo illuminates troubling micro-economies. His formal, pleasingly de-saturated compositions expose of Nigerians at work in dumps where European and American personal computers reach the end-of-line and are ripped apart for scrap. In another series, he trains his lens on men who leash hyenas as street-side entertainments.

  • Zanele Muholi, responsible for the eye-catching cover shot, takes riveting portraits of the Lesbian, transsexual, and gay communities.

  • Jodi Bieber, best known for her award-winning Time cover photo of an Afghan woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, shot an unconventional series called 'Real Beauty'. Woman of all ages and shapes pose as models in lingerie.

  • David Goldblatt, regarded as an elder statesman among South African photographers, creates riveting monochrome portraits of ex-convicts that are further humanized by the explanatory text placed immediately next to the pictures.

The proximity of text to Goldblatt’s photos enhances the experience of viewing his pictures. This layout, however, is the exception rather than the norm in this volume, where elsewhere Garb has separated many artist statements and artist interviews from their photographs. This forces the reader to flip back and forth to the end of the book to better understand context as well as scope and intent of the artists’ work.

Minor objections aside, the general quality of photography in this diverse collection is so high that readers will likely discover several photographers that speak to their taste. For the international reader, the book promotes curiosity in a South African society filled with contradiction and dynamism.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 14
By shikhagautam (3 months ago)

i dnt like the cover page
read my blog

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
By NancyP (Oct 27, 2011)

re: the cover.
The photo caught your attention, didn't it? That photo did its job.

By DFlo (Oct 24, 2011)

Thanks for bringing this one to our attention Adam. There's very little photography stateside on contemporary social issues in South Africa. Successful images focus our attention on spaces and ideas that we haven't considered, but desperately should. Looking forward to picking this up soon!

By CollBaxter (Oct 23, 2011)

As a South African it was good ( Refreshing) to see a Shouf Efreeken book that did on have barbed wire , chains , starving , dying people, wildlife or poverty, on the front cover. This was quite startling as we now seem to have gone totally in the other liberal direction. One wonders when you look on the book shelf ( By it cover alone.) if this book is in the correct shelf.

To be a total troglodyte my mates would have serious dough’s about me if they saw it on the coffee table. LOL

By jamesfrmphilly (Oct 23, 2011)

black folk got cameras? will somebody please tell the american art establishment.

1 upvote
1972 snr
By 1972 snr (Oct 23, 2011)

I don't like the cover, because it pushes a lifestyle of people that is too subjective, gay. If it walks like a duck, then it's a duck. This is a forum, that's my comment about the way the book is being advertised. What about the photography, where are the shooters or this is what we have come to now, fashion what-to-be photographer who want to push their lifestyle on the art.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 24, 2011)

'Pushes a lifestyle'? Even if your assumption that the subject of the cover photo is gay is correct, are you really that suggestible?

1 upvote
1972 snr
By 1972 snr (Oct 24, 2011)

I don't like how the gay community are so darn pushy with people. If they can have a voice, so can I. I am a nice looking man, be while in art school, most gay photographers always have to go out the way to push their gayness as a reason for anything. I'm sick of it. If you can understand my point, if you don't oh well.

1 upvote
By gava (Oct 24, 2011)

Maybe if you'd seen the exhibition or knew something about the grotesque abuses the gay community has been subject to in South Africa you might change your bigoted mind. Or maybe not. Some of the female subjects of the photographs have been subjected to "punishment" gang-rape and been infected with HIV/ AIDS during that torture. Of course you probably don't care about that. That is part of the reason for those pictures - to bring attention to these horrors. But to your ignorant provincial mind they are "pushing" a lifestyle on you?

For shame!

By GKC (Oct 24, 2011)

How is a photo of a gay man in any way "pushing a lifestyle" on you in any way... Did you even read this article or are you just a bigoted troll?

By gava (Oct 23, 2011)

I did a review on my blog:

Of the exhibition, not the book.

Comment edited 28 seconds after posting
1 upvote
By RoelHendrickx (Oct 23, 2011)

This review (like most other book reviews so far) comes across more as promotional blurb than as a real review.
What is the point of just enumerating a limited number of descriptions of published photos?
The only hint at critique, is the remark about text in conjunction or not with the images. I believe that is a matter of creative choice of the editor and/or artists. Personally, I prefer photos on pages without text that distracts from just absorbing the pure image (captions and explanations can be placed on separate pages to which anyone can refer who really needs text to appreciate photos).

sean lancaster
By sean lancaster (Oct 23, 2011)

I spent the better part of a month in South Africa earlier this year (see my avatar) and plan to do so every year. I will not be buying this book because I like to think of my photography there as pretty good. This book, no doubt, will make me look like the amateur that I am. ;~)

But I'll think about . . .

1 upvote
By tugwilson (Oct 22, 2011)

This is a disgracefully superficial "review" of this book and exhibition.

I went to the show and I have the book. There's scope for criticism , but I'm disgusted by this shallow treatment of a small proportion of the work.

South African photography deserves better than this.

Total comments: 14