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.